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The General Situation
At the birth of christ, the lands which surrounded the Mediterranean Sea were under the political control of Rome, whose empire embraced not only the coastal territories but their hinterlands as well. Bounded by the ocean and by the Rhine and Danube rivers to the north of the Mediterranean, it encompassed North Africa and Egypt and stretched in the East to the borders of Armenia and of the Persian Empire.
In the century and a half before the appearance of Christianity, the sway of the Senate and People of Rome was extended from Italy to include not merely Gaul, Spain, and North Africa in the West, but also, in the East, the Hellenistic monarchies which had succeeded to the empire of Alexander the Great. This time of expansion coincided with an era of growing conflict and instability in the social and political life of the Roman republic. The assassination (44 B.C.) of Julius Caesar, carried out by a party which feared his subversion of traditional republican institutions, was followed by civil wars which affected all parts of the territories ruled by Rome. It was generally with relief and hope, therefore, that people greeted the final triumph of Octavian, Caesar's nephew and adopted son, whose task it became to reconstitute the Roman state and to reform the administration of its provinces. Preserving the form of republican institutions, Augustus (as Octavian was officially and reverently named in 27 B.C. by the Senate) eventually concentrated all effective power (imperium) in his own hands, receiving lifetime status as tribune of the people and then as consul, with the title "leading citizen"(princeps). Acting with this authority, he brought order to the government of the provinces and relative peace to the whole of the Mediterranean world.
The imperial system which Augustus thus established embraced peoples of many languages and cultures. In most regions of the empire, the basic political and social unit was -- or came to be -- the polis, a term commonly but inadequately translated into English as "city." This was a corporation of citizens tending the affairs of a modest territory whose heart was an urban center of greater or smaller size. Under Roman aegis, such civic corporations -- which were ruled oligarchically for the most part -- were responsible for their own local affairs as well as for the taxes which supported the imperial establishment and its armies. Each city thus provided for the worship of the god or gods who were its patrons, for the administration of justice, and for the welfare of its citizens and other residents. Each was a focus of local pride, with its economic roots in the surrounding countryside.
Put together as it was out of a multitude of ethnic, cultural, and religious groupings, the empire was held together by a common political allegiance, by economic and commercial interdependence, and by a shared higher culture. Politically, everything depended upon Rome, its emperor, and its armies, both for the maintenance of internal order and for the protection of the outer frontiers of Mediterranean civilization, where most of the legions were stationed. Within the empire, the principal source of wealth was the land and its products, and agriculture was the chief industry. Communities distant from the Mediterranean and its tributary rivers lived for the most part on local produce, but the cities of the seacoast -- and especially great cosmopolitan centers like Rome -- were dependent on a lively trade in the staples of life: grain, wine, and olives. North African grain fed the population of Rome as, at a later period, Egyptian grain transported from the seaport of Alexandria sustained the inhabitants of Constantinople. Italy itself was a center of viniculture, and its wines were exported extensively. The Mediterranean cities, then, which were the core of the empire, were increasingly bound together in a nexus of commercial relationships.
The unity and cohesion of the empire, however, depended also upon the existence of a common higher culture -- the "Hellenistic" culture which grew up in the wake of the conquests of Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.), as Greek language, education, and civic institutions were diffused through the eastern Mediterranean world. Even Rome, in the century and a half before the birth of Christ, became a cultural and intellectual tributary of the Greek tradition. As Greek became the daily speech of city-dwellers in the East, it also became a normal second language for educated persons in the West, where Latin was the common tongue. Other languages -- Aramaic, Coptic, Punic -- by no means disappeared, but they tended more and more to become languages of the uneducated and of the rural population. In this way, Greek science, Greek religious philosophy, and Greek art and literature enriched and were enriched by other traditions and created the possibility of a shared world of cultural and religious values for the urban civilization of the Mediterranean area.
In this complex, variegated, and remarkably sophisticated world, religious concerns, beliefs, and practices were central in the lives both of individuals and of communities. At the same time, however, the religious currents of the time were diverse. To speak in general terms, one can distinguish three broad categories of religious belief and observance. First, there was the traditional religion of the family and community gods -- what one might call the "civic religion" of the Roman-Hellenistic world. Second, there were the so-called "mystery cults." These were for the most part oriental cults which had their mythic roots in local fertility rites, but which, in the cosmopolitan world of the Greek-speaking empire, underwent a transformation and became voluntary brotherhoods which offered their initiates salvation from the trammels of Fate and Fortune. Finally, there was the way of life which sought human fulfillment and blessedness through the pursuit and practice of philosophical wisdom: a wisdom founded upon criticism of the traditional gods of the Greek pantheon, but capable, as time went on, of offering a "demythologized" version of traditional religion. In practice, these different styles of religion coexisted peacefully, and some individuals were, to one degree or another, involved in all three of them. They responded, however, to different needs, and to some extent they presupposed differing perceptions of the human situation.
On one matter, however, the various types of religion were at one. People in the Roman world were acquiring -- had, indeed, for the most part already acquired -- a new picture of the cosmos. Gone was the flat earth and overarching heaven of ancient myth. Educated and half-educated persons alike now saw the earth as a sphere set motionless at the center of things. Around it in their orbits moved the seven planetary spheres, and around this whole system moved "the heaven," the realm of the fixed stars. To the ancients, however, this cosmos was no mere machine. They perceived it rather as an ensouled -- that is, a living -- thing, in which orderly change and motion were maintained by divine Mind. The world was pervaded by life, and the gods who inhabited the heaven and the planetary spheres were the manifestations or representatives of the ultimate divine Power which extended to all things, even to affairs in that sector of the cosmos -- earth -- which was farthest removed from the divine realm.
Traditional religion in the Roman-Hellenistic world was a public and social affair, an affair of family and community. Since human well-being depended at every moment on the good will of the gods, the cosmic powers, religion sought their help for the common concerns of life: the growing of crops, the conduct of business, the difficult enterprises of war and diplomacy. Its rites were age-old and traditional,
Posted November 19, 2004
I am somewhat of a hobbyist where Christianity is concerned and this book gives the most detailed and concise history of the faith that I have ever read. The authors have outdone themselves in presenting Christianty in a clear and straightforward way, doing away with the either right or left leanings of other books. It gives the facts as facts with no 'slant' and that, for me, is a refreshing change of pace. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the facts of the history of Christianity.
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Posted February 27, 2010
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