Religion and Politics in Western Civilisation: The Ancient World as Matrix and Mirror of the Modern

Andreas Osiander
November 2015

This article was published in its original form in 2000 in Millennium: Journal of International Studies.  It is here reproduced in a slightly revised version.

I     Introduction
II    Graeco-Roman Religion
……….Flawed Gods, Weak Priests
……….The Other ‘Religion’: Secular Philosophy
III    Christianity
……….The Rise of Christianity: A Memetic Explanation
……….Ecclesia Militans: How Western Civilisation Turned Christian
IV    Legacies
……….The Notion of Redemption as a Root Cause of Totalitarianism
……….‘Judeo-Christian’ Values?
Notes and References


Religion and Politics in Western Civilisation:
The Ancient World as Matrix and Mirror of the Modern

 I Introduction

This article seeks to evaluate, from a historical perspective, the role played by religion in Western civilisation. It would evidently be impossible, in an essay, to give equal weight to each single phase in the development of this civilisation. Fortunately, that is not necessary. Western civilisation has developed under the influence of two systems of religious belief: Graeco-Roman religion and Christianity. By the time antiquity gives way to the middle ages, both paradigms have reached maturity. I have therefore chosen to focus on the ancient world in this paper.

    A civilisation only exists historically, that is in time as well as in space, because it has a collective memory specific to it. If we accept that social systems are collective mental constructs, then a given civilisation cannot escape from, but will always be conditioned by, the historical experience stored in its collective memory. Western collective memory reaches back to the Graeco-Roman world, between fifteen and thirty centuries ago. The vast amount of literature preserved from that era not only records the thinking of the ancient world, but has influenced those who passed it on. Contemporary civilisation draws on that thinking as much as previous ages. Conspicuously, it uses words coined then, perhaps most prominently in scientific discourse with its Graeco-Latinate idiolect. Less conspicuously, but even more importantly, it uses patterns of thought shaped in antiquity.

    The method employed here is indebted to the thinking and terminology of Johan Galtung and his ‘civilisation theory’,[1] and in particular to the concept of ‘deep culture’. According to this, typical patterns of political behaviour may be traced to thought patterns rooted, and indeed buried, in the collective subconscious shared among members of the same civilisation. Because they are buried, the very existence of such thought patterns usually goes undetected, especially if the civilisation in question is one’s own.

    A similar concern with making visible what usually escapes notice is behind Galtung’s distinction between direct, structural, and cultural violence. Often, only direct violence, the consequences of which are willed by identifiable individual actors, is perceived. Direct violence consists of events, whereas structural violence is a social setup institutionalising an unfair distribution of advantages and disadvantages. As structural violence consists of situations rather than events, it is less easily noticed: awareness is dulled by habit. This effect is enhanced further when situations of structural violence are legitimated by belief systems, a phenomenon that Galtung calls cultural violence: ‘Cultural violence makes direct and structural violence look, even feel, right—or at least not wrong’.[2] Religious belief has a potent impact on all three forms of violence.

    It is in this light, then, that we need to look at the two systems of religious belief that have conditioned, and still condition, Western civilisation. Section II of this paper offers a brief reminder and analysis of salient features of Graeco-Roman religion. This provides the background for a fresh look at the rise of Christianity, which will be explained in section III by drawing on the theory of memetics. Finally, section IV will discuss the continuing impact of both belief systems on contemporary Western civilisation.

II Graeco-Roman Religion

Religion answers a basic psychological need for reassurance. Many religious creeds ascribe the seemingly arbitrary ups and downs of existence to the action of supernatural beings (deities and demons), and they ascribe to such beings the power to alter events affecting people. The fact that such deities can be reasoned with (or, in the case of demons, fought or evaded) lessens the feeling of helplessness and exposure.

    In addition to fulfilling this psychological function, religion often also serves a social and political role. It is often instrumentalised to cement the social order and to give certain people control over it. There is a recurrent, typical pattern to the way religion is instrumentalised for social control. On the one hand, the religion in question ordinarily has a built-in set of norms governing social behaviour. It propounds the notion that the deity or deities must be propitiated by adherence to that code of behaviour, portrayed as divinely inspired. On the other hand, an afterlife is posited to which divine rewards and punishments can be deferred. Whether or not they are actually meted out thereby becomes conveniently unverifiable.

Flawed Gods, Weak Priests

Graeco-Roman religion lacked this function of social control. There was no divinely inspired code of behaviour. Albeit powerful and eternal, the Greek gods themselves were neither conspicuously virtuous nor evil. Rather, they displayed much the same shortcomings as their human followers. In the famous story of Kroisos (set in the sixth century BCE),[3] this king noted for his proverbial riches boasts of his happiness, only to be told by Solon of Athens that no man should call himself happy before his death. In this context Solon warns the king of the gods: they are ‘mean-spirited and fickle’.[4] Lines from Euripides, the fifth-century BCE playwright, express a similar view: ‘Sooner or later not ours alone, but all men’s lives are brought low by the deity, and no one is happy throughout’.[5]

    The gods can also be great and good, but the point is that mortals may not be sure of that. It is an interesting question—though not one often asked—how this unflattering image of the gods can be explained. In my view, it is related to the fact that Greek (and Roman) society did not rely on religion as a tool for social control. Religion served only the basic psychological function mentioned above: reassurance, some sense of control over human destiny. If there is no standard of behaviour enforced by the gods—because control of the social order is kept outside their domain—then in order to rationalise the contingencies of human existence it is necessary to depict the gods as erratic and potentially aggressive: for bad things cannot, in this case, be interpreted as punishment for ‘sin’. That Greek religion was really an attempt to rationalise the unpredictability of human existence was a position that, interestingly, could be formulated very publicly already at the time. ‘What shall I say, Zeus?’, Euripides has one of his characters proclaim on stage: ‘That you look on men? Or else, that it is futile delusion for us to imagine a race of gods, while chance alone controls our mortal world?’[6] With this type of religion, which did not impose norms of personal behaviour, worship consisted exclusively in rituals, public or private, designed to propitiate the gods and thereby gain reassurance.

    The social order was not conceived of as being divine in origin or defended by divine sanctions. Ancient lawgivers were invariably human, whether historical figures, like Solon of Athens, or mythical, such as (probably) Lykourgos of Sparta. No code of behaviour was handed down from on high in the manner that Moses received the tablets on Mount Sinai. Sanctions based on religion played no conspicuous role in preventing deviant behaviour. Not only was religion no help for shoring up the social order, but in the eyes of some it could itself be subversive of it. Plato has Socrates inveigh at length against the popular image of the gods as little better than misfits and has him censor large parts of the popular mythology about the gods. Socrates considers this unsuitable to teach to young people because of the bad example that the gods set.[7] Often, though, political authors were simply not particularly interested in religion. Aristotle, in the Politics, assembles a long book on the organisation of political communities in which religion plays almost no role.

    I contend that religion was not instrumentalised as a tool for cementing the social order because that social order was not predicated on oppression of the majority of the population by the privileged few. Ernest Gellner has claimed that in every post-nomadic, but pre-industrial, civilisation in history there is a peasant class, a warrior class, and a powerful clergy, with the latter two holding the former down, and that the transformation of Western civilisation from this ubiquitous pattern into a post-religious, rationalistic society is a difficult-to-explain, indeed a near-miraculous phenomenon.[8] But in fact neither Greek nor Roman society shows this triple division. Elsewhere in antiquity, civilisation often developed along great rivers (e.g. the Euphrates and the Tigris, the Nile, the Indus, the Huangho) and involved complex systems of artificial irrigation. We know today that coercive systems of rule followed the establishment of such irrigation systems rather than the other way round (as was previously supposed). Michael Mann has aptly compared such infrastructures to cages: people could no longer evade attempts to establish power over them unless they were willing to give up the benefits of civilisation itself.[9]

    The Mediterranean world (outside Egypt) was different. Its agriculture was not irrigation-dependent and each family farm was very largely self-sufficient. It also did not require much technical investment to run, meaning that, in a world far less populated than today, it could be translocated with relative ease to escape political oppression. Greek and Roman society had no Mannian ‘cages’ and was therefore relatively resistant to coercive rule. Even city-dwellers often remained self-sufficient farmers with fields to look after in the countryside.[10] In its formative stages, this society was thus dominated by independent farmers who both did their own fighting and supplied their own religious personnel, without allowing either activity to be monopolised by a specialised class or caste. Later, mercenary soldiers came to do most or all of the fighting, both in the Hellenistic world and then in the Roman empire, but their social status remained low. Priests never formed a separate social group.

    Access to political decision-making was far from equal, and structural violence took the stark form of slavery. But in the thinking and to a large extent also the practice of the era, free men were precisely that: free, not subjects (whatever their social standing). Until late antiquity, there was in the Graeco-Roman world no monopoly of legitimate violence, indeed no acceptance of government by coercion or the threat of it. Difficult as it may be to imagine today, neither the Greek poleis nor even the Roman empire had a police force. The very concept was unknown. In an important sense, the Roman empire had no government either. Until the third century CE, it made do with a minuscule bureaucracy that limited itself to a supervisory role; local communities largely administered themselves and often had their own laws and coinage. While republican Rome had no standing army at all, in imperial Rome almost all troops were stationed at the frontiers. Generally in the Mediterranean ancient world there was no acceptance of the idea that political order must, or even merely may, be based on coercion. Attempts to rule by force—such as the fifth-century BCE Athenian empire—tended to be shortlived; Roman rule, by contrast, relied heavily on the skilful cooptation of local elites.

    Unlike what is often found elsewhere in history, the Graeco-Roman upper classes did not compensate their numerical weakness by harnessing religion to defend their status. As that status was not based on coercive rule there was no need to do so. Rather, their concern was to limit the power of the clergy. In the Greek poleis, priests were often magistrates elected by their fellow citizens, mostly for a fixed, brief term of office (commonly a year). Often, too, magistrates had a priestly role as a mere adjunct of their other duties. Some religious dignities were also hereditary and/or for life, but this was less common. In Rome, the various colleges of priests were essentially self-coopting and membership was for life. Priests exercised some political influence because they could bestow or withhold their approval of measures proposed. In the middle republic there was growing opposition to the fact that priests had this power, but, unlike other magistrates, were not elected by the citizens. As a result, by the end of the third century BCE the comitia, the citizens’ assembly, obtained a say in the appointment of the pontifex maximus. This post was commonly held by a prominent elder statesman, some trusted member of the political class (and later by the emperor). The pontifex maximus supervised all other priests: not his least significant function was to keep the priesthood under the control of the secular power. By the end of the first century BCE, the participatory role of the comitia was extended to the recruitment of all important priestly colleges.[11]

    However, the more intellectually sophisticated Roman society became (largely through growing Greek influence), the more the priesthood declined. Quite a few of the priestly colleges disappeared in the second and first centuries BCE from lack of new recruits. It was only in the reign of Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE) that they were restored. This was not so much piety as propaganda: it was part of a political programme that trumpeted the restoration of traditional Roman values as a legitimation for the new autocratic regime.[12] This programme was most easily advertised through the vehicle of religion, the public, recurrent, and geographically ubiquitous nature of whose ceremonies made it well-suited to reach as large an audience as possible; the emperor worship established later followed a similar rationale. Interestingly, both in the Greek world and in Rome women, while barred from all political participation, could hold religious office and become priestesses of certain deities or sanctuaries. It is tempting to regard this ‘liberal’ attitude in what was very much a masculinist society as another indication of the limited importance attaching to priestly office.

    Graeco-Roman religion had no holy scriptures the interpretation of which could be monopolised by the clergy. A tendency to establish sacred texts—the so-called ‘orphic texts’ or, in Rome, the Sibylline Books—is noticeable but remained inchoate. ‘Orphic’ texts were poems attributed to Orpheus, the mythical bard, that offered stories about the gods and the creation of the world. Their influence remained limited to the fringes of the religious mainstream. We do not know what the original Sibylline Books, destroyed by fire in 83 BCE, contained. They are generally assumed to have consisted of prophesies in Greek verse, as their subsequent replacement clearly did, but this is not certain. Interestingly, in republican Rome access to the Sibylline Books was firmly under secular control: priests could not consult them except in emergencies and at the express authorisation of the senate.[13] The same concern with secular control is apparent from a story related by Livy: in 181 BCE, the tomb of Numa Pompilius, reputed the wisest of the old Roman kings, was allegedly discovered and in it books with a religious content, The senate proceeded to have those books burned.[14]

    Nor, on account of the peculiar image of the afterlife in Graeco-Roman mythology, could priests wield the threat of eternal damnation. Some thinkers (notably the Epicureans) denied that the soul is immortal in the first place. In any case, according to mainstream religion the soul invariably ended up in the underworld, the Realm of Shadows, of which Homer and Vergil have given famous and rather unenticing descriptions.[15] It did not matter, for one’s destiny after death, how one had lived one’s life. There was an inchoate differentiation, with special areas, Tartaros and Elusion, set aside for the very wicked and for the elect (Tartaros was in the underworld; Elusion is often identified with the Isles of the Blest, situated in the ocean near the edge of the earth). But the analogy with the Christian hell and paradise is imperfect. Famous inhabitants of Tartaros, according to Greek mythology, include Tantalos, with fruit dangling before him that he can never reach, and Sisyphos, forever pushing that rock uphill. Yet, in either case, the punishment is not so much for immoral behaviour toward their fellow men but because these two gentlemen tried to outsmart the gods. Conversely, in Homer, Menelaos is told that he will go to Elusion, not as a reward for being a good person but because he happens to be married to Helen and thus to be an in-law of Zeus himself.[16] Socrates, in the passage from the Republic already cited, also wants to ban the tales of the underworld because they might make people think twice about giving their life for their fellow citizens.[17]

    Another important point is that like all pre-Christian faiths in the Mediterranean area Greek religion was non-missionising. Its influence spread beyond the ethnic group in which it evolved, but not through active proselytism. While the original Roman religion apparently had no anthropomorphic gods but venerated impersonal divine forces in nature (known as the numina, though that expression may only date from a later period), Greek religion progressively displaced or rather transformed it. While Roman religion retained certain specific traits, the overlap—from a broad, fundamentals-oriented perspective—is greater than the differences. Moreover, there was little if any attempt on the part of Rome to keep its ‘own’ religion separate. Correspondences (e.g. between individual Roman and Greek deities) were established with alacrity, and the Greek example tended to be regarded as authoritative. Conversely, foreign gods that came to the attention of the Graeco-Roman world were not generally fought but likely to be simply co-opted into the pantheon. Solicitous not to offend any potential deities that might have escaped their notice, the Athenians in the first century CE famously even had an altar dedicated ‘to the unknown god’.[18]

The Other ‘Religion’: Secular Philosophy

In looking at the Graeco-Roman ‘religious’ paradigm it is important not only to understand the place occupied by religion but the space that religion left unoccupied and thus open for other things.

    The Graeco-Roman paradigm was not centred on the divine or the transcendent, but squarely on human beings themselves.  Whereas the Christian god is stated to have created man in his image,[19] the opposite was freely acknowledged to be true of the Greek deities. It was readily conceded that the myths about them were the product of poets.[20] As early as the sixth century BCE, Xenophanes of Kolophon observed that people in different parts of the world imagined their respective gods to mirror their own physical appearance (the Ethiopians thought of them as dark and snub-nosed, the Thracians saw them as having blue eyes and red hair). He suggested that if cattle, horses, or lions could depict their gods they would make them look like themselves.[21]

    The majority of people certainly did not share that kind of attitude and might well be hostile to it. But countermeasures, if any, were not very determined, once again probably because the social order, not primarily based on religion, was not seriously threatened by free thinkers. There is evidence of action occasionally taken against them, but, significantly, it is not very clearcut. In fifth-century Athens charges of asebeia, impiety, were apparently brought against the philosophers Anaxagoras and Protagoras. Albeit positing a single divine mind responsible for the order of the universe, Anaxagoras sought to understand the world in non-metaphysical terms (thus he is credited with the hypothesis that, rather than the resplendent sun god traversing the sky in his chariot, the sun was really a ball of molten metal larger than the Peloponnese). He is said to have left Athens to evade the charges of asebeia, only to find refuge at Lampsakos where he was greatly honoured. The accusation against him may in fact have been politically motivated and aimed indirectly at his close friend Pericles.[22]

    Protagoras, who coined the phrase that ‘man is the measure of all things’, also stated that ‘concerning the gods I am unable to discover whether they exist or not’.[23] According to Diogenes Laertios, this latter pronouncement, the opening sentence of one of his works, earned him banishment from Athens.[24] Yet Plato has Socrates insist that Protagoras was honoured throughout his life.[25] Most famously, Socrates himself was sentenced to death in 399, but asebeia was only one of the charges. Again, the reason for his conviction may have been political, since he passed as an opponent of democracy in sympathy with those who wished to restore oligarchy. Socrates apparently confused his friends by rejecting their entreaties that he should flee the city—which indicates that that was what one was expected to do in his position, rather than suffer the penalty. We are insufficiently informed about the details of any of these three cases, but they seem to have in common that while all three philosophers may have attracted criticism for their stance on religion, that did not seriously tarnish their reputation or diminish their influence.

    Philosophers played an incomparably greater role in ancient society than the eponymous but rarefied pursuit today. Because religion was not instrumentalised to maintain the social order and on the contrary was kept weak, people in the ancient world sought advice not from priests but from philosophers, a fact that was to be of prime importance for the shaping of Western civilisation. Often drawing large crowds and vying with each other for notoriety, even stardom, philosophers, not priests, were the providers of ethical and spiritual guidance. They were divided into a multitude of competing schools—Academics, Cynics, Epicureans, Peripatetics, Stoics, to name only the main ones—but this competition was peaceful and pluralism taken for granted. Most philosophers were neither atheists nor indeed a-religious. Many, if not most intellectuals seem to have inclined towards henotheism, the notion that all the various local cults and deities were emanations or partial representations of a single all-encompassing divine being.[26] Nonetheless, this philosophical guidance was generally secular and libertarian, and it was never instrumentalised for the purpose of social control.

III Christianity

The origins of Graeco-Roman religion are lost in the mist of time, and as Simon Price remarks, continuity outweighs innovation during that portion of its history of which we are informed.[27] By contrast, Christianity has a relatively recent, turbulent, and well-documented early history in which politics plays a large role. This section will offer a fresh telling of this story so as to throw light on key aspects of the development of Western civilisation.

The Rise of Christianity: A Memetic Explanation

Richard Dawkins was the first to propose the concept of ‘memes’ as a cultural counterpart of biological ‘genes’: memes are any items of copyable behaviour, or instructions for behaviour (thus including abstract ideas, all of which have a direct or indirect impact on behaviour). Memes ‘programme’ their carriers (in this case, unlike genes, human beings only) and are passed on precisely through being copied. They act much like genes in that, without any intentionality or ‘mind’ of their own, they mutate and evolve, with variants better adapted to the cultural environment, i.e. the sum total of coexisting and interacting memes, displacing less adapted ones. Similar to genes that combine to form more complex organisms, memes combine into ‘memeplexes’ (short for ‘coadapted meme complexes’). One example of such memeplexes is religious creeds, which Dawkins has described as ‘viruses of the mind’.[28] To ensure their own propagation, they ‘hijack’ the mental faculties of their carriers while inhibiting their critical judgment, necessarily dangerous to such memeplexes. Taking up this notion, Susan Blackmore has recently examined some of the propagation techniques that religious creeds or similar memeplexes employ.[29] Though fascinating, her description of those techniques takes no account of different types of religion. It can fruitfully be elaborated upon to furnish an explanation for the rise of Christianity.

    In early Greek or Roman society, religion had been ‘embedded’ in the social order: it was simply part of the social setup into which people were born, much like, say, their family, and it was accepted, taken for granted as just another set of ancestral customs. In the language of memetics, transmission of memeplexes was predominantly vertical, that is, from one generation to the next. But as cultural horizons widened in the course of the Hellenisation and then Romanisation of the Mediterranean area and its eventual unification in the Roman empire, cultural exchanges increasingly created a sort of religious ‘market place’ in which a variety of religious doctrines were ‘on offer’.[30] Horizontal transmission of memes, that is transmission within the same generation, increasingly rivalled vertical transmission. Like Graeco-Roman religion itself, most alternative creeds had little in the way of supra-local, let alone centralised organisation, and while people were free to join them with a greater or lesser degree of commitment (embedded creeds typically had no firm membership criteria), religious doctrines did not aggressively compete for adherents.

    Graeco-Roman religion was a weak memeplex that nevertheless did well enough in the sheltered conditions of vertical transmission. Moreover, all other established creeds with which it came into contact were similarly embedded (somewhere) and likewise lacked defences against memetically stronger challengers, simply because they had never encountered such challengers in the course of their evolution. In the conditions of the ‘religious market place’ that characterised the Roman empire of the first three centuries CE, the old embedded creeds coexisted quite peacefully. Nothing prepared them for the arrival in that market place of a new type of predatory memeplex that had never been embedded but evolved from the start in competition with existing creeds. Lacking an established home base, the new type of religion represented by Christianity (and later, Islam) was not embedded but exposed. It had to be far more aggressive than any of the old creeds or it would not have survived.

    A mutant form of Judaism, Christianity got a head start through its descent from a religion that, despite being ancestral, was in itself more aggressive than was common with embedded creeds. Judaism, perhaps because it was the religion of a small and threatened ethnic group, had discovered for itself the concept of chosenness: Jews saw themselves as divinely elected, as set apart from, and superior to, other communities on metaphysical grounds. While, in the ancient world, inter-ethnic prejudice and feelings of superiority were no monopoly of the Jews, nowhere else were they explicitly based on religion. In the case of the Jews, the chosenness meme evidently served to maintain the cohesion of an ethnic group in danger originally from being so small and then, in addition, from being scattered. As if overcompensating for their relative weakness and deep-seated sense of threat, the Jews had fashioned for themselves a rather militarist, vengeful deity: he was ‘the lord of hosts’ who would mercilessly exterminate both the enemies of ‘his’ people and those within it that failed to obey his commands, the first of which (the first of the Ten Commandments) was a prohibition on worshipping other gods. Their aloofness tended to make Jews unpopular, but from a memetic viewpoint this was desirable because it contributed to maintaining in-group solidarity. Thus in a less than sympathetic ethnological excursus on the Jews, the Roman historian Tacitus observed in the early second century CE that ‘among themselves there is an obstinate loyalty and a ready helpfulness, but towards all others a hostile disdain’.[31]

    Christianity took over from Judaism the notion that its adherents were God’s elect: the ancient church saw itself as verus Israel, the true people of Israel. It also suffered from similar problems, only worse: early Christians too were a small and dispersed group, but unlike Judaism they did not even have any kind of home base nor any tradition of embeddedness. In such conditions survival presupposed growth, in other words, efficient preying on the adherents of other creeds. (Readers should bear in mind that this does not mean that early Christianity was some kind of conscious conspiracy: the ‘preying’ was meme-driven, a reaction to evolutionary pressure—adapt or die—rather than the application of some preconceived game plan).

    Christianity thus came up with something that we now tend to take for granted in a religion but which, at least in the Mediterranean world of antiquity, had to be invented: proselytism, the active, indeed aggressive, search for new members. No other religion on the ‘market’ was actively missionising (there could be no tradition for this as it was superfluous in conditions of embeddedness). It is commonly supposed that first-century Judaism was also a missionising religion and that Christianity ‘learned’ this trait from Judaism. But it has been shown that the evidence for first century Jewish proselytism is, at best, inconclusive, while there is much to suggest that Jewish missionising followed the example of Christianity rather than the other way round.[32] That is also what the memetic reasoning employed here would lead one to expect.

    The gospel attributes to Christ the injunction on his followers to convert all humankind: ‘And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel, to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned’.[33] It was thought that Christ would only return once the gospel had been made known to all humanity, a notion that provided a memetically powerful incentive for transmission.[34] The unprecedented and revolutionary nature of this whole approach cannot be emphasised enough: here was a universal religion that threatened unsuspecting non-adherents with punishment. In itself, this goes a long way to explain the antagonism that the new movement was to provoke and by which, in turn, it was to be shaped itself, quickly turning into something far less benign than what its founder, or individual adherents, may have intended.

    The ‘preying’ started with Judaism itself, most early Christians being recruited from among the Jewish congregations of the Roman empire. Unsurprisingly, the reaction from Judaism was hostile and relations between the two creeds remained poisoned throughout antiquity (and, of course, beyond).[35] But to grow strong Christianity could not limit its missionising to its original, small Jewish substrate. Despite some opposition from within the new movement the Christian mission soon began to target non-Jews as well: ‘For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek’, that greatest of the first-century missionaries, (Saint) Paul, exhorted his followers in the empire’s capital.[36] Again, the reaction was hostile, the more so as the new religion not only represented itself as superior.  Unlike all rival creeds, including Judaism, it actively vilified the established Graeco-Roman religion as dangerous demon worship in which Christians participated at the cost of eternal damnation.[37]

    What ‘baits’ did Christianity use to attract new members? Blackmore sums up what she sees as the most common transmission techniques for ‘virus-like’ memeplexes:

Take a highly emotional naturally occurring human experience with no satisfactory explanation, provide a myth that appears to explain it, and include a powerful being or unseen force that cannot easily be tested. As optional extras include other functions such as social coercion (the Old Hag gets you when you do wrong), reduction of fear (you’ll live forever in heaven), use the altruism trick (good people have this experience or believe this myth) or the truth trick (this explanation is The Truth).[38]

The obvious example of a suitable ‘naturally occurring human experience’–also mentioned by Blackmore—is death, which Christianity attributes to Adam’s fall and ‘original sin’ while at the same time presenting it as something that Christianity can overcome. It is worth noting that whereas Christianity avails itself of all the elements in Blackmore’s list (itself evidently inspired by Christianity), the much weaker Graeco-Roman religious memeplex did not systematically use any of them. In general it did not purport to be able to conquer death, it posited no devil or other personified evil, it promised no salvation, it did not claim to be the path to moral goodness, and the—often multiple and inconsistent—myths about the gods were not considered to be some kind of divine revelation or sacrosanct truth. All of those elements were not conspicuous even in first-century Judaism, where, for example, belief in an afterlife was not universal.[39] While each of these elements taken separately had antecedents or parallels in the ancient world, Christianity was the first memeplex that systematically elaborated, combined, and ‘marketed’ them.

    Another memetic factor favouring Christianity was its extensive catchment area. While benefiting from the relative ease and safety of communications throughout the entire Roman empire, Christianity offered an anti-elitist counterculture that appealed to the underprivileged, who of course formed a very large recruitment pool. In the first three centuries CE its main appeal was to that majority of the free population that was comparatively poor and uneducated. In spite of being as misogynistic as ancient civilisation in general, Christianity also had a marked attraction for women, another large, underprivileged group. Conversely, conspicuous exceptions aside, its progress was slow both among slaves and among the educated.[40] The explanation is partly to be found in another concept not exploited by the embedded creeds: the twin memes of conversion and revelation.[41] Conversion meant personal re-birth, the chance to become another, better person instantly, rather than as the result of protracted, arduous efforts at self-improvement as taught by ancient philosophers. Revelation occurred in the form of visions and dreams, which Christians took very seriously. Peter Brown has pointed out that between them, those two ideas

opened a breach in the high wall of classical culture for the average man. By ‘conversion’ he gained a moral excellence which had previously been reserved for the classical Greek and Roman gentleman because of his careful grooming and punctilious conformity to ancient models. By ‘revelation’ the uneducated might get to the heart of vital issues, without exposing himself to the high costs, to the professional rancours and to the heavy traditionalism of a second-century education in philosophy.[42]

    All those elements working together gave Christianity increasing, indeed seemingly unstoppable momentum. The metaphor of a predatory virus was of course unavailable to ancient writers, but rather remarkably a somewhat similar metaphor, that of a weed that the cultivator’s efforts are powerless to eradicate, is suggested by one of the exponents of the new religion himself. Referring to the martyrs of the new faith, Tertullian, writing in the early third century, exults in a famous passage that ‘we become more numerous every time you mow us down: blood is the seed of Christians’. The verb meto, ‘to mow, cut down or pluck’, is ordinarily used with reference to plants, and the word ‘seed’ shows that that comparison is intended.[43]

Ecclesia Militans: How Western Civilisation Turned Christian

As with Judaism, a major problem facing the new religion was how to maintain control over its adherents and to keep them both together and apart from the larger world, which was difficult for a scattered minority. In response, the early church developed a powerful network of communications. Permanent mutual contacts were necessary to maintain the cohesion and spiritual unity of God’s people, continually under threat. The gospel warned that there would be many false prophets,[44] and someone had to decide, to distinguish authoritatively which prophets were false and which were true.[45] Total homogeneity of belief remained an elusive goal and Christianity always laboured under some schism or other (indeed, normally, more than one). But by the same token the pressure was always on the church to perfect its means of control.

    It was its capacity to monitor and influence its adherents—to the point of voluntary martyrdom—that brought the church to the attention of the authorities, first as something that had to be fought, and eventually as something that could be useful. As yet another innovation Christianity was a religion that sought to control not just the behaviour, but also the mind of its followers. The Graeco-Roman gods cared only to a limited extent how humans behaved and not at all about what they thought. But in Christianity, thinking a sin is as bad as committing it, and sin carries the penalty of eternal damnation, the loss of the everlasting life in heaven promised to the virtuous.[46] Thought control was later perfected through the ‘sacrament’ of confession, which encourages and indeed obliges the faithful to expose their mind for inspection by the clergy.

    The terminology of the church is shot through with metaphors of supervision. In contrast to Graeco-Roman religion, both the deity and the clergy are assigned a parental role (the term ‘father’ being used both for god himself and his priests). God is commonly addressed as ‘lord’ (kurios, dominus), to the point of this appellation becoming another name for the deity. No such term, conveying a duty to obey, was similarly associated with any Graeco-Roman god or goddess. From the second century, local congregations and priests were increasingly subject to the authority of an ‘overseer’ (episkopos, ‘bishop’, from the verb episkopeô, to watch over), responsible to no one but the assembly of his peers. This overseer (or Christ) is often likened to a shepherd, and ordinary Christians to a flock of sheep, a perhaps somewhat unflattering comparison that puts autonomy and individuality at a discount.

    We imagine the early church as peaceful and long-suffering. But this is to some extent a propaganda image created by writers affiliated with the church. In fact, Christians tended to cause civic unrest wherever they appeared.  From a very early point, their record in this respect is startling and unrivalled by any other sect or movement. As at first they were mainly recruited from within Jewish communities, those communities became the first theatres of violent clashes involving Christians. The death of a certain Stephanos (Saint Stephen, reputed the first of the martyrs) in Jerusalem within a few years of the execution of Christ is an example.[47] The Roman historian Suetonius notes that the emperor Claudius (ruled 41-54) expelled ‘the Jews’ from Rome because of continual unrest among them, fomented by a certain ‘Chrestus’.[48] First-century observers found it notoriously difficult to understand either Judaism or Christianity and to tell them apart, and since nothing else seems to be known about this particular ‘Chrestus’ (a relatively common Greek name) it is a plausible guess that Suetonius mistook talk about Christ(us) as referring to a living person. If true this would suggest that as early as the mid-first century Christianity posed a problem for the authorities even in Rome itself.[49]

    The Christian habit of dissociation from, and distaste for, the rest of the population fostered aggression against the church (even more than with Judaism, Christian charity, both spiritual and material, was in-group only). Famously, the emperor Nero took advantage of anti-Christian feeling in his attempt to deflect popular attention away from the great fire of Rome in 61 and his own alleged role in it. At his instigation, numerous Christians were arrested and, in the words of the historian Tacitus, ‘found guilty, not indeed of arson but of hatred for the human race [odium humani generis]’.[50] According to the manuscripts, Tacitus wrote chrestiani, which in conjunction with the passage in Suetonius has led some commentators to affirm that it was really the followers of the mysterious ‘Chrestus’ who were persecuted by Nero. However, Tacitus (writing at the end of the first century) goes on to explain that chrestiani were the followers of a man executed in Palestine during the procuratorship of one Pontius Pilatus. He remarks further that although Nero persecuted them for the wrong reason, the character of the sect justified action against it. Even assuming that Tacitus made a mistake, he evidently thought that Christians fitted the bill.

    While by the end of the third century Christians formed a sizeable minority of the population of the empire (closer estimates are unfortunately impossible), Christianity would not have triumphed socially had it not been able to gain control of the central power for the purpose of fighting all rival creeds. This process began with the reign of Constantine I (ruled 306-37, sole emperor from 324).

    In the so-called crisis of the third century—more than two dozen rulers succeeding, and fighting, each other between 235 and 284, civil war compounded by continual foreign incursions, collapse of the currency leading to a barter economy, widespread failure of local government—an implosion of the empire was only narrowly avoided. Diocletian (ruled 284-305) at last reconsolidated the empire through ambitious administrative reforms, the first emperor for half a century to hold on to power long enough to do so. But his determined attempt, undertaken late in his reign (303), to stamp out Christianity was unsuccessful. The renewal of warfare between contenders for imperial power that followed his abdication in 305 meant that while in some regions of the empire persecution continued until 313, nothing much happened in other regions. Constantine, who eventually defeated all other contenders for the throne, was among those who favoured Christianity. The church was both firmly implanted at the grassroots level and successfully operating at the level of the empire as a whole; it was probably a more efficient organisation than the imperial administration itself. By wielding the threat of eternal damnation, it was capable of exercising a large measure of control not only over the behaviour, but even over the thinking of its adherents. For the faltering secular power it was thus not only a dangerous opponent, but also a useful potential ally.

    Constantine emancipated the church, made it rich through extensive donations and privileges and assisted it in fighting the perennial problem of internal dissent. In return, the church put its organisation at the service of the empire. This marriage of church and secular power was quite successful, consolidating the empire for centuries to come at least in the east. To be sure, the western provinces were ultimately lost. But by that time the support of the central power had made the church so strong that it no longer needed the empire for its survival. Indeed, its position remained such that until a comparatively recent date it imposed on all secular authorities that succeeded the Roman empire the same pattern of alliance and mutual reinforcement of church and secular power, inducing similar political behaviour to that already found in the fourth and fifth centuries.

    The mindset with which the church emerged from three centuries of (albeit intermittent and unsystematic) oppression was not one of love for its enemies. Writing after the last persecution of 303 onwards, which cost him his post as teacher of rhetoric at the court of Diocletian, the Christian writer Lactantius exults in the unsavoury deaths with which the Christian god supposedly struck those that harmed his church:

Their punishment has come late, but it has been heavy, as it deserved to be…I decided to bear witness to the deaths of these men, so that all…should know how far the supreme God has revealed His Excellence and His Majesty in obliterating and destroying the enemies of His Name.[51]

Speaking of the ruling families under whom the persecution took place, Lactantius notes that ‘[a]ssuredly the Lord has destroyed them and erased them from the face of the earth [erasit de terra]’.[52] J.L. Creed, whose translation of this text is quoted here, remarks that this emphasis on divine retribution is borrowed from Judaism.

    While today there is a tendency to assume that in Christianity the ‘loving’ god of the New Testament somehow supersedes the god of revenge of the Old Testament, the early church made a point of espousing the Jewish Old Testament as well (in the second century a certain Markion started an interesting christian ‘heresy’ which rejected the Old Testament while promoting a ‘dejudaised’ version of the gospel, but was combated vigorously). The spirit of revenge in which Lactantius composed his tract culminates in the description of the disease of the emperor Galerius in 311. Moved by a horribly painful illness (intolerandis doloribus) to decree an end to the persecution, within days the emperor succumbs to symptoms complacently if perhaps not wholly credibly detailed by Lactantius, from the original tumor of the genitals to the emperor being eaten alive by worms while the stench of his festering body fills the whole city.[53] In fact this passage is modelled on the description in a second-century BCE Jewish text, the Book of Maccabees, of the disease visited on the Seleucid king Antiochos Epiphanes (ruled 175-64 BCE) as punishment for his anti-Jewish policies.

    Also the author of a textbook of the new religion (the Divinae Institutiones), Lactantius is quite representative of the newly triumphant Christian mainstream. With the connivance, and increasingly the support, of the secular power, from victim the church turned aggressor. Through its efforts to weed out both dissidence within it and the remnants of competing cults the church became a factor of continual violence in the late Roman empire, violence that was often relatively low-key but pervasive. The church secured the support of the urban poor by feeding them: already documented in the third century, this phenomenon became increasingly pronounced in proportion as the church grew rich from the fourth century onwards.[54] In the countryside, monks were also often recruited from the rural proletariat. Since the mid-fourth century, both the urban poor, and in the countryside, monks were regularly employed by the church authorities (usually, the local bishop) to intimidate opponents.

    The impulse to fight real or presumed enemies appears like a congenital trait of the new religion. Its adherents, in late antiquity, continually fought among themselves: ‘Any attempt to draw a scale of religious violence in this period [337-425] must place the violence of Christians towards each other at the top’.[55] Constantine, in seeking the support of the church as a factor of unity of the empire, probably underestimated the propensity of Christians to treat each other as heretics that needed eliminating. Soon after he became sole emperor in 324, the Arian schism, the worst in the early history of the church, erupted with full force. Constantine sought to quell it by calling an assembly (council) of the episcopate at Nikaia (Nicaea) in 325. Personally presiding over the conference, he got the majority of the participants to sign a compromise formula on penalty of exile for non-compliants (this formula, the Nicene Creed, is still in use today). While the compromise soon collapsed, the meeting served to give the issue even greater publicity. Arian and ‘orthodox’ Christians continued at each other’s throats for more than a century to come. While the orthodox (Nicene) camp by and large kept control in a climate of oppression, denunciation, and persecution, on occasion local Christian communities lapsed into civil war.

    The fourth-century (non-Christian) historian Ammianus Marcellinus relates how the emperor Julian (ruled 361-63), in his short-lived attempt to restore the old religion, urged Christians to treat each other less aggressively and to allow each to serve his faith ‘without impediment or fear’. According to Ammianus this ostensibly moral exhortation was really motivated by the idea that in a climate of freedom Christian opinion would become so fractious and divided that it would no longer present a threat to the emperor’s objectives: ‘For he knew from experience that no wild beast is as dangerous to man as Christians often are in their murderous mutual hatred [nullas infestas hominibus bestias, ut sunt sibi ferales plerique Christianorum expertus].’[56] The same historian reports how, in 366, a quarrel over who should be bishop of Rome—in which the issue of Arianism also played a role—left 137 dead in one church (now known as Santa Maria Maggiore).[57] The successful candidate, Damasus, employed bands of gravediggers ‘in a series of murderous assaults on the supporters of his rival’.[58]

    At the same time as it pushed for increasingly restrictive and draconian legislation against non-Christian cults, the church resorted to mob violence to put pressure on those not yet baptised. Although, in bringing about the triumph of Christianity, legislation played its role, mob action was usually a step (or more) ahead of it. Christian sympathisers tend to imagine that by the time Christianity made its appearance pre-Christian cults were moribund and without much attraction for their followers anyway. But ‘paganism’ died a far less willing death than is often supposed: it was ‘brutally demolished from below’, the means being ‘a wave of terrorism’.[59] Once Christianity had won the favour and protection of the imperial court the destruction of non-Christian sanctuaries became a favourite occupation.[60]

    While embedded creeds had the religious sphere to themselves, the destruction of the holy sites of one faith by the followers of another was highly uncommon. When it happened, usually as a side effect of warfare, one did not advertise it or take pride in it. Thus when Xerxes had the temples of Athens destroyed in 480 BCE along with the rest of the city, this was directed against the Athenians, not against their gods. According to Herodotos the Great King on that occasion sacrificed to those gods to expiate any offence to them he might have caused.[61] But in the late fourth century the destruction of ‘pagan’ and Jewish places of worship became endemic. Writing in the 380s, the celebrated (non-Christian) writer Libanios, in a vain plea addressed to the emperor Theodosius, describes what was happening in his native Syria:

this black-robed tribe [i.e. monks]…hasten to attack the temples with sticks and stones and bars of iron, and in some cases, disdaining these, with hands and feet. Then utter desolation follows, with the stripping of roofs, demolition of walls, the tearing down of statues and the overthrow of altars, and the priests must either keep quiet or die. After demolishing one, they scurry to another, and to a third, and trophy is piled on trophy, in contravention of the law. Such outrages occur even in the cities, but they are most common in the countryside. Many are the foes who perpetrate the separate attacks, but after their countless crimes this scattered rabble congregates and calls for a tally of their activities, and they are in disgrace unless they have committed the foulest outrage.[62]

According to Libanios, the theft and plunder associated with such attacks usually went unpunished because by that time cases against the presumed offenders were often heard by the local bishop:

[I]f the victims of this looting come to the ‘pastor’ [poimên, shepherd]—for that is the title they give to a fellow who is not all that he should be…this pastor commends the looters and sends the victims packing with the assurance that they are lucky to have got off so lightly.[63]

For Libanios, the conversions secured by such tactics were merely opportunistic.[64] While this worried some Christians, eminent theological authorities regarded forced conversions as defensible and indeed desirable.[65]

    This campaign of destruction was not only directed at ‘paganism’ but also at the Jews. To cite one famous example, sometime in the 380s—coeval with the text by Libanios—the synagogue of Kallinikon (ar-Raqqa in modern Syria) was set on fire and destroyed ‘at the initiative of the bishop [auctore episcopo]’, who pushed a Christian mob into action; at or around the same time monks also burned down the meeting place of a sect called the Valentinians in a nearby village. The affair was passed all the way up to the imperial court at Milan; apparently the clerical perpetrators of such encroachments could no longer be punished at a lower level. The emperor at first did what (presumably) the local authorities had requested and ordered proceedings both against the bishop and against the monks; the bishop was ordered to have the synagogue rebuilt at his expense. We know of this affair because the bishop of Milan, Ambrosius (Saint Ambrose), stepped in. Threatening to cause a public scandal by refusing to celebrate mass for the emperor and his court, he obtained the lifting of the sanctions against the Kallinikon clergy and documented the episode in his letters, which he later published.[66] Ambrosius also records the destruction, again in the 380s, of a synagogue at Rome.[67]

    Two more illustrations show the width and depth of the phenomenon, as much urban as rural and found from one end of the empire to the other. A most spectacular example of this coercive Christian missionising was the sacking—preceded by a regular siege and involving an unknown number of fatalities—of the great shrine of Serapis at Alexandreia in Egypt in 391 or 392, an edifice ranked among the world’s most magnificent.[68] As usual, the bloodshed of the early 390s very likely resulted from an initiative of the local bishop, Theophilos. But it was under his nephew and successor Kyrillos (Saint Cyril) that religious violence in Alexandreia—still predominantly ‘pagan’—reached its paroxysm. Cyril’s election and investiture, in October 412, was accompanied by three days of fighting with the supporters of a rival candidate. One of his first acts in office was to close the churches of the Novatians, schismatic Christians who had their own bishop and hitherto tolerated. Also, within a year or two, relations between Christians and Jews in the city deteriorated, with the Jews, who were numerous in Alexandreia, complaining to the new city prefect, Orestes, about Cyril and his agents and receiving a sympathetic hearing. Repeatedly afterwards, brawls and indeed regular ambushes between members of the two religious groups caused numerous victims, until eventually the Jewish quarter was raided by militant Christians and its inhabitants expelled from the city. As well as relying on his sway over parts of the urban proletariat, Cyril called in large numbers of militant monks from the countryside. He also disposed of a kind of paramilitary body of young men called the parabalanai (in theory, hospital orderlies).

    His activities set him on a collision course with the city establishment, including moderate Christians like Orestes. The enmity between bishop and city prefect led among other things to Orestes being severely injured when set upon by monks in the street and hit upon the head with a rock. In his efforts at reigning in the patriarch, Orestes received the public support of perhaps the most prominent inhabitant of the city, Hypatia (ca. 355-415). A renowned mathematician as well as one of the foremost philosophers of her day, she was influential both in Alexandreia, where despite her asceticism and perhaps somewhat abrasive personality she moved in the highest social circles, and elsewhere, including at the imperial court. Some of her students occupied important posts in the imperial bureaucracy; as the extant letters of one of them, Synesios, make clear, they doted on her. Other sources, too, portray her as a revered as well as outspoken figure: ‘she was swift and ingenious in arguments’.[69] As noted, philosophers traditionally played an important role in ancient society. Hypatia, like her older colleague Themistios at Constantinople, still commanded this traditional respect despite keeping their distance from the church. It is indicative of the intensity of this respect for philosophical knowledge that it was even capable of transforming a woman from a sexual object into a commanding figure: ‘Her presence in male company had nothing shameful to it’, writes a contemporary, ‘for on account of her exceptional wisdom everybody rather [!] regarded her with respect and fear’.[70]

    However, not only did this conspicuous role make Hypatia a symbol of the old order to be destroyed, but her connections and her alliance with Orestes made her a political threat to the patriarch. His supporters began denigrating her as a sorceress who had bewitched Orestes (the monks who assaulted him blamed him for having forsaken Christianity). In March 415, a Christian mob likely led by the parabalanai dragged Hypatia from her carriage, stripped her naked, killed her with bits of broken pottery, tore her body apart, and burned her remains in a public square (the sources differ slightly on the details of the murder, but are unanimous in describing it as gruesome). Nothing happened to Cyril (who obviously disclaimed responsibility), and Orestes appears to have been recalled, or perhaps he resigned. The only ‘punishment’ against this criminal act was the issuing of an imperial decree of 416 ordering the number of the parabalanai to be reduced from 800 to 500.[71]

    Whereas Alexandreia was a metropolis with a population of several hundred thousands, the last example dates almost from the same time but is set in a very provincial corner of the empire. In 417 or 418, a bishop named Severus composed an epistle about recent events in his diocese. His bishopric is an island in the Mediterranean that, in his own words, ‘by its small size and its arid and desolate character is the last place on earth [insula quae omnium terrarum parvitate, ariditate, asperitate postrema est]’. But, for the bishop, no place is too insignificant for the Lord to work his great deeds; to the modern observer, the early-fifth-century island of Minorica (Menorca) presents itself as a microcosm modeling the empire at large. It is like an experimental set-up permitting a study in vitro of the forces at work in bringing Western civilisation under the control of the church.[72]

    Severus tells a tale of two cities, situated at the two extremities of the island, and of two religious groups, Christians and Jews. The island has two major towns. One, Iammona (today, Ciutadella), is inhabited only by Christians: by a peculiar grace of God, any Jews that come to live there suffer unaccountable, even fatal mishaps. Therefore, they have given up trying; all of them, along with some Christians, now live at the other end of the island in a place called Magona (today, Maó or, in Castilian, Mahón). Like his colleagues elsewhere in the Roman empire, the bishop is by that time not just a spiritual but also a civic leader with considerable secular power. But the civic leader of Magona, a certain Theodorus, is the head of its Jewish community. One day, a travelling cleric (identifiable from other sources as Paulus Orosius) alights on the island. He is coming from Palestine, and he has in his possession some alleged relics, recently discovered in the Holy Land, of Saint Stephen, whose martyrdom at the hands of the Jews of Jerusalem has already been mentioned. Before his departure, Orosius deposits some of the relics in the church at Magona, where they soon begin to have the miraculous effect of instigating anti-Jewish Christian hatred.

    Severus relates how, as a result,

not only were the accustomed goodneighbourly relations broken off, but the insalubrious appearance of long-standing friendship was transformed into temporary hatred, though for the sake of eternal salvation.[73]

The bishop is delighted at this development. In his opinion, the Jews are deservedly (merito) compared to wolves and foxes on account of their aggressiveness and evil cunning (feritate atque nequitia). He further likens them to snakes and scorpions and calls them a perfidus populus. The two groups almost come to blows. But Theodorus, hastily recalled by his co-religionists from his estates in the neighbouring island of Maiorica, manages to restore order; many of the Christians are cowed by his presence. To prevent their ardour from slackening, Severus has already composed an anti-Jewish tract (commonitorium). He also describes dreams by various people that suggest ongoing divine interest in the matter. Informed that the Jews are stockpiling arms in their synagogue, he now marches on Magona, accompanied by a crowd wonderfully undeterred by the long distance (the figure given by Severus, thirty Roman miles—forty-five kilometres or twenty-eight English miles—matches the distance on the modern road).

    Arrived at Magona, the bishop forces a meeting on the reluctant Jews. He records his speech:

Brothers (I said), why on earth would you be heaping up piles of rocks and all sorts of weaponry as if to defend yourself against bandits, this in a city subject to Roman laws? Are we [Christians] after someone’s possessions, are you, for your part, intent on someone’s undoing? Justice is not served, in my opinion, by each side levelling all manner of complaints against the other: you, I can tell, are after our blood, whereas we desire your salvation.

When the Jews respond with denials, Severus resolves to go to the synagogue to have a look for himself. The Christians now flock to the synagogue to the accompaniment of a psalm, in the chanting of which the Jews paradoxically join. But some Jewish women start hurling stones at the crowd from above, which the Christians hurl back. No one is seriously hurt, but when the Christians arrive at the synagogue they set it on fire without further ado (Severus neglects to mention whether any weapons were actually found). The bishop continues:

The synagogue having thus been destroyed, to the stupor of the assembled Jews, we went to the church, chanting hymns on the way; and we gave thanks to the author of our victory. With ardent prayers we implored the Lord to clear out those veritable dens of perfidy and to let the darkness of infidel souls be vanquished by the light.[74]

The phrase ‘the author of our victory’ probably refers to Saint Stephen, whose relics later ‘specialised’ in anti-Jewish miracles.[75] In a meeting which takes place soon after in the ruins of the synagogue, the Jews are told that they must either convert or emigrate. Prodded by various miracles, 540 Jews are received into the church; we hear nothing about exiles.

    Evidently, by the time this episode takes place, the ‘Roman laws’ that the bishop invokes in his speech afforded only limited protection to non-Christians. As reported by Severus (there is no way of verifying his account) the affair left no one dead, and the bishop insists that all items of value taken from the synagogue were returned to the Jews. He explains that the Christians only confiscated the Torah scrolls, ‘lest left with the Jews they suffer harm’. At Kallinikon, the authorities had been ordered to investigate the theft of valuable objects in connection with the burning of the synagogue.[76] Presumably to forestall censure by the secular authorities, the bishop is clearly at pains to depict the behaviour of the Christians as entirely within the law (note his insistence that the stone throwing was started by the Jews, and harmless in any case). But while a point is thus made of respect for life and property—with a clear suggestion that the Jews lacked such respect—there no longer was any freedom of belief.

    To the agnostic observer, what the bishop consistently describes as miraculous more plausibly indicates human manipulation. It seems clear that this was a power struggle quite deliberately provoked by the christians, most likely by Severus himself, with a view to eliminating not only a rival religious community but a rival seat of social and political power. Severus himself tells us that the whole episode occurred almost as soon as he took office (another parallel with Cyril of Alexandreia). His reporting is so eager, so palpably unafraid of possible scepticism as to suggest an audience that took the pious sentiments here voiced for granted, either because it had really imbibed the new ideology and its attendant discourse as illustrated by Severus, or because scepticism would have been dangerous. The document is addressed ‘to the most holy and blessed lords bishops, priests, deacons, and the whole brotherhood, in the entire world’; an encyclical, it was intended to be read from the pulpit. By publicising the affair, Severus evidently expected to shine among his peers.

IV Legacies

The point of this exposition of aspects of the Christianisation of Roman society is to document the remarkable shift, not just intellectually and culturally, but also regarding patterns of political behaviour, that accompanied the transition from Graeco-Roman religion to Christianity. While we might be tempted to view certain forms of political behaviour, in particular certain forms of violence, as simply generically human, I wish to argue on the contrary that, in the history of Western civilisation, they had a datable beginning, which is the advent of Christianity.

The Notion of Redemption as a Root Cause of Totalitarianism

I have dwelt on the tactics employed to make Christianity the sole religion of the Roman empire in the expectation that readers will recognise patterns of behaviour familiar, not least, from the political history of the twentieth century and its totalitarian movements. Fifty years ago a document akin to the Epistula Severi might have been addressed, say, to the central committees and other comrades of all brother parties of the world. There is also the obvious parallel with twentieth-century nationalism and its habit of ‘ethnic cleansing’. The similarities are not accidental but result from the same Christian deep culture acquired in antiquity. As Galtung has written, Judaism, and following it, Christianity

envisaged God as a male deity residing outside planet Earth…With god outside us, as God, even ‘above’ (‘Our Father, who art in Heaven’), it is…likely that some people will be seen as closer to that God than others, even as ‘higher’. Moreover…there would also have to be something like an evil Satan corresponding to the good God, for reasons of symmetry…Whom does God choose? Would it not be reasonable to believe that He chooses those most in His image, leaving it to Satan to take the others…? This would give us a double dichotomy with God, the Chosen Ones (by God), the Unchosen Ones (by God, chosen by Satan) and Satan; the chosen heading for salvation and closeness to God in Heaven, the unchosen for damnation and closeness to Satan in Hell…Religion and God may be dead—but not the much more basic idea of sharp and value-loaded dichotomies…Modernity would reject God and Satan but might demand a distinction between Chosen and Unchosen; let us call them Self and Other. Archetype: nationalism, with the State as God’s successor. A steep gradient is then constructed, inflating, even exalting the value of Self; deflating, even debasing the value of Other.[77]

    But did not such behaviour also occur before Christianisation? The answer, I think, is no. It did not occur under the old, Graeco-Roman religious paradigm, very different from many aspects mentioned by Galtung in the passage quoted. Importantly, there is no Satan in Graeco-Roman religion. There was a distinction between ‘Olympian’ and ‘chthonian’ (earth) gods. The former were ‘high gods’—Zeus, Apollo, Athena—indeed residing ‘on high’ (though, for what it is worth, Mount Olympos is not of course ‘outside planet Earth’), while chthonian gods were associated with the underworld. But the divide was not very marked. Important deities straddled it (thus there was Zeus Chthonios as well as Zeus Olympios, and the very popular goddess Demeter was also associated with both spheres), and chthonian gods were no more evil than Olympian ones.

    This lack of ‘sharp, value-loaded dichotomies’ in Greek religion is reflected in the field of social and political behaviour. There are virtually no instances of ‘religious’ or any other kind of ‘cleansing’, or related measures, from the pre-Christian ancient world. The sole significant example of an attempt to suppress another religion is precisely the anti-Christian stance of the Roman authorities in the first three centuries CE. But this is both exceptional and logical: no other religion threatened the paradigm of religious pluralism and tolerance as such; Christianity did. In a sense, the reaction against Christianity was thus a defence of the old religious paradigm itself, chiefly characterised by the fact that it did not accord religion a dominant place in society. This paradigm collapsed with Constantine and the emancipation of christianity. As Dimitris Kyrtatas has pointed out, ‘[w]ith Constantine, it was, along with Christianity, religion that came to power’.[78] This crucial transformation was a sharp turn in the history of Western civilisation.

    Underdeveloped in terms of doctrine as well as uncentralised and non-missionising, Graeco-Roman religion was impossible to have a war on behalf of. While it condemned disrespect of the gods, the notion of heresy was alien to it, there being no agency capable of deciding, let alone enforcing, what was orthodox and what was not.[79] In Blackmore’s terms, it did not employ the ‘truth trick’: it did not claim to be ‘The Truth’, thereby excluding or indeed penalising alternative narratives.[80] Graeco-Roman religion did not rely on, and thus did not inspire, the belief that defined communities were superior to others, or that others were evil. It did not support the notion of ‘chosenness, a vicious type of cultural violence’.[81]

    The absence of religiously motivated violence against or within groups is likewise noticeable in the treatment of individuals. As there was no religious war in the pre-Christian ancient world, either within communities or between them, so also there were no witch-hunts. By contrast, witch hunts became intermittently common under Christianity, in which any deviation, real or alleged, from the Christian ‘truth’ could become a pretext for violent action. As mentioned, the murder of Hypatia in 415 was prepared by casting her as a sorceress, an early example of a ‘tradition’ continued until the late eighteenth century when Christianity killed its last ‘witches’ in Europe (at Glarus in Switzerland in 1786, at Posnań in Poland in 1791). Twentieth-century totalitarianism revived the notion that uniformity of belief was a paramount social and political goal that justified violence against dissidents or more generally those deemed undesirable, be they collectivities (even whole countries or indeed ‘races’) or individuals. Although alleged sorcery was by then unlikely to furnish grounds for persecution, the same is obviously not true of heresy, ideological deviation. Other grounds might be ‘sabotage’, ‘treason’, or in extreme cases plain unworthiness, un-chosenness.

    There are two obvious objections against the line of reasoning sketched out above. One would be to say that the argument rests on an unwarranted idealisation of the pre-Christian ancient world; the other might point out that twentieth-century totalitarianism is not simply Western.

    The argument here is not that the pre-christian Graeco-Roman world represents some kind of paradise lost. In its way, it was a violent world too, both in terms of direct violence (e.g. warfare) and structural violence (e.g. slavery, discrimination against women), accompanied and partly legitimated by forms of cultural violence (e.g. the belief in the superiority of master over slave, of man over woman, of Greek over Roman and vice versa, of either over the ‘barbarians’). The crucial difference is that such preconceptions had no metaphysical underpinning and were challengeable with impunity.

    For the fifth-century BCE Greek world, the Persians were the archetypal barbarians as well as the arch-enemy, and Greek literature is full of slurs against them. But at the same time, Herodotos, the great chronicler of the Greek defence against the Persians, remarks with utter casualness that, needless to say, the Persians also regard themselves as superior to everybody else.[82] The oldest surviving Western play, The Persians, was composed in the 470s BCE by Aischylos, a participant in the battles of Marathon and Salamis. Intended to commemorate the Greek victory, remarkably it adopts the viewpoint of the defeated enemy. This kind of easy recognition that the other side was equally human was foreclosed by the Judeo-Christian concept of divine election of the self and damnation of the other. However much this runs counter to present-day, ‘tamed’ Christian feeling, the notion that anyone who was not a Christian or simply, in the eyes of those in power, not a proper Christian was rejected by God was bound to have a dehumanising effect: ‘but he who believeth not shall be damned’.[83] This is what led Severus to incite ‘temporary hatred, though for the sake of eternal salvation’.[84] In the same vein, heretics were later burned at the stake on the grounds that this temporal punishment might at least help them gain the life everlasting in the next world. Because it regarded this earthly existence as precious rather than as a mere sorry prelude to redemption, pre-Christian Graeco-Roman thinking was thus perhaps  more respectful of human life.

    Christianity eliminated or alleviated none of the existing structural violence. While, as far as I am aware, ancient philosophers never questioned the inferior status of women, the doubtful legitimacy of slavery belonged to the stock-in-trade, for example, of the Stoics and their humanistic preaching. Seneca (first century CE) is representative of this line of thinking, which stresses the universal community and solidarity of mankind: ‘Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies’.[85] Conversely, in the New Testament (Saint) Paul firmly and authoritatively comes down against those who may have felt that the new religion ought to do something about the role of women (‘it is a shame for women to speak in the church. What? came the word of God out from you?’) or slaves (‘Servants [douloi, i.e. slaves], be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ’).[86] Nor, I think, can an empirical case be made for Christian societies having historically been more caring and humane than non-Christian societies.

    As to the observation that twentieth-century totalitarianism was not exclusively or even predominantly Western, the extent to which, since the nineteenth century, the West became the model imitated by other parts of the world must be borne in mind. Those who did the imitating prized modernity over tradition. While Christianity as such, tradition-bound and in the eyes of the non-Christian world culturally alien, met with greater resistance, the mindset or deep culture behind it was far less visible and readily accepted as part and parcel of Western ‘modernity’. Japan, having already imported a measure of Christian deep culture in its determined effort at Westernisation in the Meiji era, imported more along with Fascism; so, in China, did Maoism along with Marxism-Leninism. (This is not to say, however, that there were no indigenous cultural roots supporting totalitarian tendencies as well — I know too little about non-western parts of the world to be any judge of that). Islamic fundamentalism, insofar as its orientation is totalitarian, may also owe more to Westernisation than to Islamic tradition. Islam is in many ways memetically akin to Christianity (having also arisen as a new, exposed memeplex dependent on militant proselytism; moreover, it was of course acutely conscious of the example of both Judaism and Christianity). But compared to Christianity Islam has historically been more tolerant of non-believers even in its midst. Soviet totalitarianism might not be called Western, but certainly shared with the West its Christian cultural substratum.

‘Judeo-Christian’ Values?

If, perhaps, Western Christianity has indeed been a less favourable soil for totalitarianism than Eastern, this is the result of two related factors determining the history of the West in the second millennium CE: political, and eventually also religious, fragmentation on the one hand, and the rehabilitation of the deep culture of the old religious paradigm on the other. The history of the West in the last millennium shows a steady erosion of the Christian paradigm in favour of a return to values originating with the old paradigm. Graeco-Roman religion as such was not restored, of course, but important parts of the associated deep culture were.

    The early stages of this process are marked by intellectual revolutions triggered by the successive retrieval of core parts of the discourse of the ancient world. The rediscovery of the Codex Iustinianus and Roman law in the eleventh century and of the political works of Aristotle in the thirteenth century both had a truly enormous impact (it really is hard to overstate this) on political thinking in the medieval West, directing it away from the transcendental and back towards rationalist humanism. This prepared the ground for the wholesale, enthusiastic reappropriation of ancient literature by the Western elite from the fifteenth century onwards. On this basis the anti-clerical counter-paradigm that the enlightenment opposed to traditional Christianity was erected. An important role in this process was played by Stoicism in general and the writings of Seneca in particular. The only one of the great Stoics to have written in Latin, and a most popular writer in antiquity, a late antique fictional correspondence linked him to his contemporary (Saint) Paul. Regarded as authentic in the middle ages, this helped ensure his continuing influence even after the triumph of Christianity. In early modern Europe, Stoicism became a kind of secret religion for intellectuals that had a deep impact on the formation of humanistic ‘Western values’.[87]

    It is a mistake to think that the dominant Western values today are owed to our Christian heritage. At their core, ‘Western’ values propose pluralism, freedom of choice, absence of constraint, concepts intrinsic to the whole idea of ‘human rights’, that key expression in current political discourse. The reason we happen to have these libertarian values is ultimately the fact that, as explained in section II, early Graeco-Roman society avoided coercive rule and did not conform to the Gellnerian model of tight military and spiritual control of the masses by the elite.[88] If Christianity today accepts these values and even—a further, interesting instance of memetic adaptation—claims them as its own, that is merely evidence of the extent to which it has become eclectic and recolonised by the Graeco-Roman paradigm. Not only are these libertarian values alien to either the Christian scriptures or the tradition of the church, it is the opposite values that Christianity has promoted for the better part of its history (Christianity is fully ‘Gellnerian’).

    The controversy caused in the 380s by Christian pressure to have the meeting place of the Roman senate stripped of its traditional ‘pagan’ furnishings well illustrates the clash between Christianity and the old paradigm over the issue of pluralism. In 384 the senate’s still non-Christian majority dispatched a delegation to the imperial court at Milan, where its leader, the city prefect Symmachus, presented an oration in defence of diversity:

Everyone has his own customs, his own religious practices; the divine mind has assigned to different cities different religions to be their guardians. Each man is given at birth a separate soul; in the same way each people is given its own special genius to take care of its destiny…And so we ask for peace for the gods of our fathers, for the gods of our native land. It is reasonable that whatever each of us worships is really to be considered one and the same. We gaze up at the same stars, the sky covers us all, the same universe compasses us. What does it matter what practical system we adopt in our search for the truth? Not by one avenue only can we arrive at so tremendous a secret.[89]

Ambrosius, the bishop of Milan previously mentioned, requested a copy of this speech to write a preliminary[90] and then a more elaborate refutation[91] addressed to the emperor:

Not by one avenue only, he says, can we arrive at so tremendous a secret. What you [non-Christians] are ignorant of, that we [Christians] have learned through the voice of God. And what you grope for tentatively, that we have been assured of by the wisdom and truth of God himself.[92]

Note the typical, emphatic antithesis ‘you’-‘we’, also prominent in Severus’s speech at Magona or in Tertullian´s Apologeticum. (Incidentally, Symmachus failed and Ambrosius won. Presumably, as in the Kallinikon affair, by then the emperor had little choice.)

    Most people in the modern West probably feel greater affinity with Symmachus than with Ambrosius. Historical experience should alert us to the political dangers inherent in the kind of certainty of belief expressed by Ambrosius. But few people are aware of the extent to which, despite all erosion, Christian deep culture continues to shape Western politics. Historically, it has regularly produced crusades, against perceived enemies both external (e.g. Muslims) and internal (e.g. the Cathars), whether in the name of religion (both in pre- and post-Reformation Europe) or of some secular ideology (e.g. nationalism). Nor were recent military interventions by Western actors (against Slobodan Milošević in Serbia, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Muammar al-Gaddafi in Libya) free of crusading overtones. The polarising habit of thinking in terms of Us and Them, a reluctance to accept pluralism over uniformity persists in competing with the ethos of pluralism.



[1]. Conveniently set out in Johan Galtung, Peace by Peaceful Means: Peace and Conflict, Development and Civilization (Oslo: International Peace Research Institute, 1996), esp. part IV.

[2]. Ibid., 196.

[3]. Dates in this paper are given as BCE or CE, (Before the) Common Era.

[4]. Herodotos Histories 1.32 (written in the fifth century BCE). If no specific edition is quoted, translations from Greek and Latin authors in this paper are my own.

[5]. Euripides Fragments 273.

[6]. Euripides Hekabe 488-91.

[7]. Plato Republic 2.377-3.391.

[8]. Ernest Gellner, Plough, Sword, and Book (London: Collins Harvill, 1988).

[9]. Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power. Vol. I: A History of Power From the Beginning to A.D. 1760 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 42; on the relationship between irrigation agriculture and coercive rule see ibid., 94ff.

[10]. See Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War 2.14 for the case even of fifth-century BCE Athens at the peak of its power and population size.

[11]. The evidence from ancient writers is referenced in Kurt Latte, Römische Religionsgeschichte (Munich: Beck, 1960), 395-96.

[12]. Ibid., chap. 11.

[13]. Ibid., 22.

[14]. Livy History of Rome 40.29.

[15]. Homer Odyssey 11.36ff. and Vergil Aeneid 6.124ff.

[16]. Homer Odyssey 4.561-69.

[17]. The notion of redemption did exist in Graeco-Roman religion. In particular, initiation to the Eleusinian mysteries, though purely a matter of ritual and not of belief or personal merit, was supposed to win one eternal life, some orphic teaching promised rewards in the afterlife for virtuous living, pythagoreans saw in successive reincarnation a means for the soul to gain ever greater perfection. However, this kind of belief remained peripheral.

[18]. (Saint) Luke Acts of the Apostles 17.23.

[19]. Genesis 1.26-27.

[20]. The locus classicus is Herodotos 2.53 (fifth century BCE), stressing Homer and Hesiod.

[21]. Xenophanes Fragments 15-16, in Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, eds. Hermann Diels and Walther Kranz, vol. I, 8th ed. (Berlin: Weidmann, 1956), 132-33.

[22]. Diogenes Laertios Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers 2.12-15 relates several, divergent accounts of this affair given by ancient writers; see ibid. 2.8-9 for Anaxagoras on the nature of the sun and other similar ideas that he put forward.

[23]. See Diogenes Laertios 9.51 for both utterances; the translation of the latter is quoted in Jan N. Bremmer, Greek Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 12.

[24]. Diogenes Laertios 9.52.

[25]. Plato Menon 91e.

[26]. From the Greek heis (genitive henos), ‘one’, and theos, ‘god’.

[27]. Simon Price, Religions of the Ancient Greeks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 7.

[28]. Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), 192ff and ‘Mind Viruses’, in Memesis: The Future of Evolution, eds. Gerfried Stöcker and Christine Schöpf (Vienna: Springer, 1996), 40-47.

[29]. Susan Blackmore, The Meme Machine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), esp. chap. 15.

[30]. John North, ‘The Development of Religious Pluralism’, in The Jews Among Pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire, eds. Judith Lieu, John North, and Tessa Rajak (London: Routledge, 1992).

[31]. ‘apud ipsos fides obstinata, misericordia in promptu, sed adversus omnes alios hostile odium’. Tacitus Histories 5.5.

[32]. Martin Goodman, ‘Jewish Proselytizing in the First Century’, in Judith Lieu et al., The Jews.

[33]. Mark 16.16. Biblical quotations in this article are taken from the 1611 Authorised Version.

[34]. Mark 13.10.

[35]. Marcel Simon, Verus Israel: A Study of the Relations Between Christians and Jews in the Roman Empire (135-425) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).

[36]. Paul Romans 10.12.

[37]. See, for instance, Paul 1 Corinthians 10.20. On the relatively more tolerant attitude of Judaism see Goodman, ‘Jewish Proselytizing’, 72-73. Conversely, the Roman state—on the rare occasions when participation in the rites of the official religion was made compulsory—respected the First Commandment and exempted the jews.

[38]. Blackmore, Meme Machine, 182.

[39]. Goodman, ‘Jewish Proselytizing’, 73.

[40]. Dimitris J. Kyrtatas, The Social Structure of the Early Christian Communities (London: Verso, 1987).

[41]. The classic instance of this is of course (Saint) Paul’s experience on the road to Damaskos as reported in Acts 9.

[42]. Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity AD 150-750 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1971), 53.  Cf. 1 Corinthians 8.1-2: ‘Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth. And if any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know’.

[43]. ‘Etiam plures efficimur quotiens metimur a vobis: sanguis est semen christianorum’. Tertullian Apologeticum 50.13.

[44]. Matthew 7.15, 24.11.

[45]. For an early illustration see e.g. 1 Corinthians (mid-first century): ‘Now I [Paul] beseech you, brethren…that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you…For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren…that there are contentions among you’ (1.10-11). Also ‘as my beloved sons I warn you. For though ye have ten thousand instructers in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you, through the gospel. Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me. For this cause have I sent unto you Timotheus, who is my beloved son, and faithful in the Lord, who shall bring you into remembrance of my ways which be in Christ’ (4.14-17) and ‘If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord’ (14.37).

[46]. See, for instance, Matthew 5.27-28.

[47]. Acts 6.8ff.

[48]. Suetonius Claudius 25.5.

[49]. For a review of the discussion on this passage see Marta Sordi, I Cristiani e l’Impero Romano (Milan: Mondadori, 1983), 33-34.

[50]. Tacitus Annals 15.44.

[51]. Lactantius De Mortibus Persecutorum [On the Deaths of the Persecutors], ed. and trans. J.L. Creed (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), 5 (chap. 1).

[52]. Ibid., 77 (chap. 52).

[53]. Ibid., chap. 33.

[54]. Peter Brown, Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity: Towards a Christian Empire (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), 90ff.

[55]. Peter Brown, ‘Christianization and Religious Conflict’, in The Cambridge Ancient History, 2d ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 13: 647.

[56]. Ammianus History of Events From the Reign of Nerva to the Death of Valens 22.5.

[57]. Ammianus 27.3.

[58]. Brown, Power and Persuasion, 103. For a study of violence in the fifth-century church see T.E. Gregory, Vox Populi: Popular Opinion and Violence in the Religious Controversies of the Fifth Century A.D. (Columbus, O.: Ohio State University Press, 1979).

[59]. Brown, World of Late Antiquity, 104. Simon Price emphasises the continuing popularity of the traditional Graeco-Roman religion even in late antiquity. See Greek Religions, 8, 166-71.

[60]. For an overview see Garth Fowden, ‘Bishops and Temples in the Eastern Roman Empire A.D. 320-435’, Journal of Theological Studies (new series) 29, pt. 1 (1978): 52-78.

[61]. Herodotos 8.54.

[62]. Libanios Orations 30.8-9, in Selected Works, with an English trans., introd. and notes by A.F. Norman (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press/Heinemann, 1977), 2: 107-9.

[63]. 30.11; ibid., 111.

[64]. Libanios 30.28-9.

[65]. See, for instance, Aurelius Augustinus (Saint Augustine) Letters 87.7, 93.5.

[66]. Ambrosius Letters 40, 41.

[67]. Ambrosius 40.25.

[68]. See, for example, Ammianus 22.16, who described it shortly before its destruction. Jacques Schwartz, ‘La Fin du Sérapéum d’Alexandrie’, American Studies in Papyrology 1 (1966): 97-111, scrutinises the ancient sources, but his more revisionist claims have generally not been adopted in subsequent literature.

[69]. Damaskios Fragments 102, quoted in Maria Dzielska, Hypatia of Alexandria (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995), 87.

[70]. ‘ouk ên tis aischunê en mesôi andrôn pareinai autên; pantes gar di´huperballousan sophrôsunên pleon autên êidounto kai kateplêttonto’. Sokrates Scholastikos History of the Church From the Reign of Constantine 15.7.

[71]. On the circumstances of the murder see Dzielska, Hypatia, 83-100.

[72]. The text is printed twice in Patrologiae Cursus Completus (Series Latina), ed. Jacques-Paul Migne (Paris: Migne, 1844-64), 20: 731-46 and 41: 821-32. For analyses see Carlo Ginzburg, ‘La Conversione degli Ebrei di Minorca (417-418)’, Quaderni Storici (nuova serie) 79, no. 1 (1992): 277-89; E.D. Hunt, ‘St. Stephen in Minorca: An Episode in Jewish-Christian Relations in the Early 5th Century A.D.’, Journal of Theological Studies (new series) 33, pt. 1 (1982): 106-23; and from a pro-catholic perspective Ludovic-Jules Wankenne and Baudouin Hambenne, ‘La Lettre-Encyclique de Severus Evêque de Minorque au Début du Ve Siècle’, Revue Bénédictine 103, no. 1 (1987): 13-27.

[73]. ‘non solum familiaritatis consuetudo divulsa, set etiam noxia inveteratae species charitatis ad odium temporale, sed pro aeternae salutis amore translata est’.

[74]. ‘Eversa itaque, cunctis Iudaeis stupentibus, synagoga, ad ecclesiam cum hymnis perreximus: et auctori victoriae nostrae gratias referentes, effusis precibus poscebamus ut vera perfidiae antra Dominus expugnaret, et tenebrosorum pectorum infidelitas coargueretur a lumine’.

[75]. Ginzburg, ‘La Conversione’, 285.

[76]. Ambrosius Letters 40.18.

[77]. Galtung, Peace by Peaceful Means, 201-3.

[78]. Kyrtatas, Social Structure, 184 emphasis added.

[79]. The Greek word hairesis originally meant ‘choice’ as well as ‘way of thinking’ and, thence, ‘party’. The new meaning that is also the only meaning of its derivatives in modern European languages emerged in parallel with Christianity.

[80].  Blackmore, Meme Machine, 180-1, 189.

[81]. Galtung, Peace by Peaceful Means, 202.

[82]. Herodotos 1.134.

[83]. Cf. p. 11 fn. 34.

[84]. Cf. p. 22 fn. 75.

[85]. Seneca Letters 47.10, in Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales [Letters on Ethics to Lucilius], trans. Richard M. Gummere (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979), 1: 307.

[86]. 1 Corinthians 14.34-6; Ephesians 6.5.

[87]. Günter Abel, Stoizismus und Frühe Neuzeit: Zur Entstehungsgeschichte modernen Denkens im Felde von Ethik  und Politik (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1978).

[88]. For pre-Christian Roman sources of the modern concept of human rights (in particular legal theorists and such authors as Cicero and Seneca) see Richard Bauman, Human Rights in Ancient Rome (London: Routledge, 1999).

[89]. Relationes 3.8, 3.10, in Prefect and Emperor: The Relationes of Symmachus A.D. 384, ed. and trans. R.H. Barrow (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), 39, 41.

[90]. Ambrosius Letters 17.

[91]. Ambrosius 18.

[92]. Ambrosius 18.8.

[1]. In this article, adjectives denoting geographical, ethnic or cultural affiliation are capitalised, but not adjectives denoting belief systems.