E. Belfort Bax

The Decay of Pagan Thought

(January 1890)

E. Belfort Bax, Decay of Pagan Thought, Time, January 1890, 52-72. [1*]
Republished in E. Belfort Bax, Outlooks from a New Standpoint, 1891, pp.39-64.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

It is probable that comparatively few educated persons, even in the present day, fully realize the fact that the historical Paganism of the ancient world had a development. They are accustomed to regard the religion of the Homeric age of ancient Greece, with its gods, goddesses, and heroes, as essentially the same with the religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century after Christ – as the religion, that is, which Constantine renounced, and which Theodosius suppressed. Going on the assumption that the gods of Homer and Hesiod were still worshipped, and the crude popular legends respecting them still believed, where not openly rejected, by even the cultivated inhabitants of the Empire, and that the ancient morality with which these worships were connected, still existed without noteworthy change, these persons not unnaturally regard Christianity as a system embodying a new spirit and code of ideas, theological and ethical, which suddenly burst upon the world, arresting attention by the startling contrast it presented to the prevailing creeds and habits of thought. Their wonder at this marvellous and unprecedented phenomenon is perennial, and furnishes a powerful argument, as they think, for detaching Christianity from the main stream of natural historical development. Now, without unduly trenching upon theological ground, with which we are not here directly concerned, we may readily admit that if the case were as stated; if a totally new view of nature, of man’s destiny, and of the aims of his life, had really fallen upon the world without any assignable connexion with previous or current thought, there would certainly have been a plausible case for regarding the Christian religion as something organically distinct from all other creeds and systems, theological and philosophical. The object of the following pages is to state briefly the facts of the case.

The great change which came over the speculative and ethical thought of the world, about the time that the Roman dominion had finally consolidated itself, or which, at least, then first became generally manifest, has been too long neglected by the general historian. Yet, the tremendous and far-reaching significance of this change can hardly be over-estimated, whether we regard it as the condition or symptom of the great transition-period which followed. The struggle between Caesar and Pompey for possession of the world Empire, is itself scarcely so significant an event as the introduction and spread of the introspective spirit, and of the mystical doctrines derived for the most part from the east which was just then beginning. The stern civic virtue of Rome, the devotion entire and complete of the man of antiquity generally to his “city” and his kindred was rapidly sinking to its lowest ebb. The “gods” – the visible sign and symbol of ancient city-life – had, in the case of numberless cities, been transferred to Rome. And what could this mean to the inhabitants, but that their city as an independent, social and political organism, had ceased to exist, that the supreme object of the devotion of their ancestors was gone? The old religion and the old morality in its most sacred form had ceased to be, for them. They were enrolled as Roman citizens perhaps, but what of that? What was Rome to them apart from its character as the metropolis of culture, but the centre of a corrupt tax-gathering oligarchy and of a military despotism which had forcibly imposed itself upon them? Even to the Roman himself, the city with its crowds of strangers, its violent contrasts of rich and poor, and its purchasable citizenship was not the Rome of Quintus Curtius, or of Manlius. The ancient forms of city and of family life and worship still subsisted, it is true, but as dried and mechanical usages from winch the life had fled. The pax Romana, had abolished for the provincial the duty of military service in defence of his city. Its magistracies and functions were reduced to sinecures; its distinctive religion as such was virtually abolished.

Economically a correspondingly great change had takes place. The old independent freeholder, working his land and his domestic slaves for his own behoof, had become almost extinct, – great amalgamated estates called latifundia, worked by armies of slaves under a villius or overseer, and cultivated with a view to the sale of the produce, had become the rule in farming generally, while in manufacture and commerce the principle of large capital and production for profit was similarly applied – to the ruin of ancient art. For generations past, the ancient city-worship had lost its prestige. The meaning of the fire burning on the prytaneum was forgotten. The public festivals, the ancient hymns, had sunk into mere conventional usages for the ordinary man, their investigation only interesting the antiquary. From the time of Sokrates onward, and especially since the conquests of Alexander had broken down the previously existing barriers between Europe and the East, the ancient moral and religious sentiments, whose object was the tribe and the city, and for which the individual as such had no place, had been positively undergoing a negative process of decay from within. It was now being undermined by the notions of independent individuality, or personality, of a transcendent deity, the creator and living power of the universe (as distinct from the old deified ancestors and personified natural objects and powers), and of a higher life of the soul after death. These ideas, which had received the fullest expression in the east, and the morality based on them, in which the categories of sin and holiness have superseded those of civic virtue and its contrary, of justice and injustice, &c., had been for generations steadily gaining the upper hand among the cultivated classes. The Roman imperium in absorbing all the old city-cults merely gave material shape to what was already accomplished in the moral sphere Another and more positive way, in which the world-empire coincided with, and gave a certain expression to, current speculative tendencies, was in the fact of its centralisation. An all-dominant city – a centre from which all power radiated was a fitting analogue of the one ultimate source of all things, of which the inferior gods were only the feeble reflex, to which all religions with their divine rites and ceremonies pointed, and who alone was the true object of worship.

These ideas which, as before remarked, had taken their rise some centuries before Christ, had been slowly and surely permeating the then world, till, about the first century of the Christian era, they had become conspicuous among all classes, and apart from an exception to be presently noticed, dominant among all persons possessing any claim to cultivation. There was a universal tendency to look toward the east, and to the oracles and literatures of past ages and ancient races for the solution of the problems respecting the soul’s relation to the supreme divine power and its destiny after death. The cults and literatures of the oriental world were supposed to enshrine this, and various mysteries and secret rites sprang up, having for their object the setting forth by the aid of symbolism, traditional and fantastic, esoteric doctrines concerning God, immortality, &c.

In considering the intellectual and religious aspect of the expiring world of antiquity, it is important to bear in mind the peculiarly fluid nature of ancient religious conceptions. The world of personified natural forces and objects which, in conjunction with the world of ancestral spirits, constituted for the ancients the field of religious thought and observance, was always vague and shadowy. Its several figures tended sometimes to coalesce and sometimes to separate, wreathing themselves into the most varied combinations. Even the distinction between ancestral hero and personified natural force or object did not count for much. Time ancestral hero was often also a sun-god, e.g., Herakles. The ancient was ready to see in every foreign divinity that was not obviously tribal or local, another aspect or name of some native nature-god. The essentially magical nature of early religion, of which the varied cults of the Ionian Empire were a survival, must also not be lost sight of. The question of names was of the utmost importance. Every divinity was supposed to have a true, sacred, or esoteric name of wondrous potency, and when invoked by this name, was bound to respond. In the “mysteries” the true name of the divinity was revealed. In addition to this religious magic, the whole of daily life was interpenetrated with a belief in amulets, charms, and sorcery generally, to an extent which might seem incredible to anyone not conversant with the literature of the time. In fact, the whole intellectual atmosphere of antiquity, and especially of the period before us, is one which it is almost impossible for any modern to fully enter into, try as he may, and let his historical perception be never so keen. To take a single instance only. One of the most important cults of antiquity was the solar cult in its various aspects. Yet how did the man of antiquity represent to himself the relations of the several objects of these cults? Did he regard them as diverse aspects of one sun-god, or were they conceived each as a separate personality? Was the “most high God,” i.e., the Sun-god as worshipped by the ancient Phoenician at its meridian distinguished by him from the Baal of fertility, the ripening sun-god? Was this again distinct from the Sun-god as symbolising the scorching or the putrefying power of the solar rays (Baal-zebub)? Again, how did the Graeco-Roman regard Apollo and Helios or Sol respectively? Was the distinction one of name only, or was the personality implied in the solar disc distinct from the personality of the god Apollo? Did Khu-nat-en (Amenophis IV.) the Pharaoh who introduced the worship of the visible sun, regard this as distinct from Ra, or only as a new aspect of Ra? These are questions very difficult to answer as regards the earlier ages of Pagan thought, the nearest solution being probably that the question never distinctly presented itself to the ancient mind; but we may affirm with confidence that, at the period under consideration, that of its decline, the tendency was to regard all diversity of name and cult as external and local, and to view the objects of all the leading worships of the Empire as different modes of approaching the same central fact – the one divinity, immanent in, or transcending, the visible world, according to the view of the worshipper. Still, the old confusion lingered on to a great extent in popular conception, till Paganism flickered finally out in the sixth century, nay, lingers on in the different local cults of the “virgin” to this day. To how many a pilgrim to Loretto, St. Jago di Compostella, Mariazell, Einsiedeln, &c., does not the local image enshrine a “virgin” special to itself, and having only a very general connexion with those of other similar establishments.

We have spoken of an exception to the general mystical tendency of’ thought throughout the empire. From the time of Augustus onwards till about the end of the second century, there was a movement of thought observable among the literary class, in many cases associated with the philosophy of Epicurus, but also with that of the Sceptics, which ran counter to the prevailing mystical syncretism, and which is reflected in the works of Cicero, Lucretius, Lucian, &c. Though the existence of this movement is unquestionable, its importance has been undoubtedly exaggerated by many historians who, like Gibbon, have assumed it to have been co-extensive with the whole of the educated classes. This it could never have been, even when at its zenith in the Augustan age, and it soon after declined, till in the third century there are scarcely any more traces of it left. The mystical movement which was going on alongside of it eventually swallowed it up. It may be doubted, indeed, whether at any time it extended beyond a few of the principal centres. The rationalism of antiquity was at no period more than skin-deep. The mythologic magical theory of nature with which all society was imbued, derived straight from the primitive ideas of pre-historic times, with the modifications induced by altered conditions of culture but still essentially the same, was too powerful to yield to the fitful flashes of the critical spirit. These did not suffice even to weaken, much less to eradicate it.

It is curious to observe how new ideas and principles invariably on their first appearance assume the guise of the old ones with which they are formally in conflict. The early Protestant sects (the Lutherans, the Anabaptists of Munster, &c) retained much of the Catholic cultus, and not a few of the Catholic dogmas; the Catholic ideal of the Christian church as a divine kingdom on earth gave way by no means at once to the essentially Protestant notion of religion as a personal matter. The new philosophy of the Renaissance which attacked Scholasticism, retained, nevertheless, the scholastic manner of approaching problems and the scholastic modes of expression. The dawning physical science of the sixteenth century was steeped in the conceits of magic, alchemy and astrology, as may readily be seen from the writings of such men as Paracelsus, Trithemius, Agrippa, Cardanus. The rising middle-classes, or that section of them which represented commercial interests, up to Adam Smith’s time, sought their advantage not in the free competition which is the real soul of commercial. enterprise, but in the old notion of status as embodied in guilds and monopolies. The modern Secularist, whose creed is professedly a protest against church and chapel, nevertheless has his regular Sunday lecture or service after the approved pattern. Even the architecture of the dissenting chapel is maintained; in places where the body is wealthy, the lecture-hall resembling nothing so much as a modern congregationalist church. Instances might be multiplied without number showing that at first it is only in one or two definite points of conflict that new tendencies differentiate themselves from the old, and that the consequences latent in these tendencies are but dimly visible to their early advocates. It is only after having passed through this early development that they begin to become concrete and show what they are in themselves. Thus it was to all appearance with early Christianity. To the eye of the contemporary Pagan it was, barring one or two peculiarities which he might easily trace to its Judaic origin, little if at all distinguishable from the various other “mysteries” then in vogue. They all had certain common characteristics secrecy of initiation, the wearing of special robes, generally white, by the neophyte; the passing through sundry stages of probation, &c., &c. They all professed to offer solutions of the problem of the relation of the soul to its supreme source, and of its destiny after death. With the third century Paganism had visibly undergone a fundamental change. Long before, the current monotheistic tendencies had received an expression in the official religion which planted the worship of the Roman Jupiter Optimus Maximus (J.O.M.) everywhere throughout the length and breadth of the Empire, identifying him with the principal god of every district, with the great Syrian sun-god of Baalbek (J.O.M. Heliopolitanus) no less than with the local divinity of the St. Bernard pass (J.O.M. Poeninus). But this personification of the Roman power was not in essence the kind of monotheism to satisfy a mystical and introspective age such as the second, and still more the third century. The notion of individual holiness, of immortality, of the “other world,” of the supra-sensible, was everywhere dominant in men’s minds, and what was required was a creed which would embrace this, and formulate it satisfactorily.

The earlier Paganism had only regarded the future life of the soul as a shadow-life, a powerless, objectless dream-existence Only a few specially select heroes were permitted the reward of the Elysian fields or the islands of the blest, which was perhaps never regarded as much more than a poetical fancy. The oriental theory of transmigration was only held by the learned. But with the decline of the ancient Paganism which had its centre in the social organization (clan, tribe, city) on this side the grave, and to which the after life of the individual was a matter of little importance – the doctrine of the Elysian fields and the Happy islands became increasingly popular, and was extended to all respectable persons. This is shown by the sarcophagi and monumental inscriptions of the period. [1] On many of the former, figures of tritons and nereids are to be seen carrying the souls of the departed ones to the “islands of the blest,” while numberless inscriptions expressly testify to the devout Pagan’s “glorious hope of immortality.” Thus we read,

“Ye unhappy living, Bewail this death; but ye gods and goddesses, rejoice at your new fellow-citizen.”

“Now for the first thou livest thy happy time, far from all earthly fortune; in heaven on highest thou enjoyest nectar and ambrosia with the gods.”

An inscription to a little girl of eight years old runs:

“Ye adored souls of the pious, lead the innocent Magnilla through the Elysian plains to your abodes.”

On the grave of an infant is written:

“My heavenly and divine soul will not pass to the land of shades; the universe and the stars will take me up; the earth has only received my body, the stone my name.”

A son prays for his father;

“Ye gods of the underworld, open for my father the plains, where, rosy-bright, dawns an eternal day.” [2]

The notion of intercession with the gods by deceased persons for their friends below also appears on sundry inscriptions. Aronobius, a Christian writer of the fourth century, refers (Adversus Gentes, ii., p.86) to the belief as general among contemporary Pagans that a happy futurity was the reward of a moral life.

The older mysteries (Samothrakian, Eleusinian, the Bacchanalian, etc.), though still the same as ever outwardly, were undoubtedly furnished with content changed in accordance with changed speculative conditions. We are here chiefly interested in the new mysteries, the object of initiation into which was avowedly the attainment of higher knowledge regarding the relations of the soul to the divinity, and its purification from material impulses, with a view to immortality. The first to notice in this connexion are the Hekate mysteries, which, although they existed previously, now obtained a special notoriety and popularity. There is little known respecting them, literature being wholly silent on the subject, and our only information coming from inscriptions. As is well-known, Hekate herself, the goddess of the underworld, was commonly confounded with Artemis (Diana), Proserpina, the Moon, etc. In the inscriptions of the later period this mystery appears as one of the important cults side by side with those of Mithras, and of the “Great Mother,” of which we shall have occasion to speak directly. At Hermannstadt in Hungary there is a bas relief representing the various grades of initiation in the Hekate cultus. Diocletian is said to have erected a Hekate temple at Antioch, to which 365 steps led down, and it would appear that the initiation always took place underground. The cultus of Sabazios the Phrygian Bacchus, extended far and wide throughout the empire. The ordinary ritual of the Sabazios worship was of the usual oriental type comprising chanting, the clashing of cymbals and the beating of drums, as the accompaniment of the wild Phrygian dance. Among the secret rites were comprised the donning of it stag’s skin, sprinkling with milk and other purifications, the whole terminating with the mystic and somewhat banal words, “I fled the evil and I found the good.” In the third century new rites came to be added, such as the passing of a golden serpent through the clothes of the neophyte (ostensibly in memory of the loves of Zeus and Demeter), who was then introduced into the sanctum when he was required to repeat the words, “I have eaten from the tambourine, I have drunken from the cymbal, now I am initiated,” and sundry other apparently meaningless formulas. The later Christian writers saw in the snake an evidence of the direct participation of the devil in the proceedings.

More direct evidence of the drift of the mysteries is afforded by those of the “mother of the gods,” the mysterious divinity who was identified with the “Syrian goddess,” whose great temple was at Hierapolis, and of whom Lucian has left so graphic a description; and also with Kybele, Urania, Rhea, & as, being in fact sometimes styled the “goddess of many names.” The new mysteries which were now composed on the older elements of the Phoenician or Phrygian cult centred in the ritual of the Taurobolia which were introduced in Rome from the East about the time of the Antonines, and consisted in the sacrifice of a bull and sometimes of a ram (Kriobolia). The neophyte claimed on the completion of the ceremony to be “re-born to all eternity” (in aeternum renatus). The initiations into these “mysteries” in Rome itself took place on the hill of the Vatican, the customary hour for this celebration being midnight. A deep fosse was made in the ground, and covered with planks, which had been bored through, and formed it kind of sieve. The neophyte arrayed in symbolical clothing and ornaments was placed in the fosse. The sacrifices were made on the top, and the neophyte, as the blood of the victim flowed through the apertures, sought to bathe himself in it – to catch as much of it as possible on his face, hair, and dress. It was through this washing in the blood of the lamb or the bull that he acquired his regeneration. He became a taurobolus. But the initiation was not completed by the ceremony alone. To be sure of his salvation he had to wear the Blood-stained garments for a specified time afterwards, and to expose himself to all the contumely which might befall him in consequence. The notion of purification by blood is constantly appearing in the Pagan “mysteries” of the empire. One of the initiated into the Taurobolia, a prefect of the city of Rome, and proconsul of Africa, seriously thanks the gods that his soul is now safe.

The mysteries of Isis formed another of the chief refuges for the subject of the emperor who was in distress respecting his soul’s welfare. The immediate object of the Isis mysteries was the representation of the mutilation of Osiris and the recovery of the lost fragments. This had become overlaid in the imperial age by a mass of mystical and esoteric lore, mainly dealing with the doctrine of personal immortality. The processions and representations, which formed part of the initiating ceremonies, are said to have had as their object to symbolize death, and resurrection by the grace of Isis. By this time Isis had, of course, become mixed up with Proserpine, Here, and other divinities. Respecting the mysterious signs and prodigies, vouchsafed to the neophyte during his initiation, the words of Lucius give some idea:

“I passed through the gates of death, I trod the threshold of Proserpine, and after I had ridden through all elements I returned. At midnight I saw the sun in its fullest splendour. I approached the gods of the upper and the under-world and I adored them in their presence.”

We can only guess at the nature of the spectacle presented to the eyes of the initiated, and whether the sights and sounds that appealed to his awestruck senses were due to mechanical contrivances or hypnotism or what not, we have no means of determining.

The Eleusinian rites, though exclusively local, were an important element in the religious life of the decaying world of antiquity. All who could afford, and who were possessed with the Zeitgeist, travelled to Greece to become initiated into these most ancient and famous of all the mysteries of the Greek-speaking world. The Eleusinian ritual had in all probability attained its completed form at a much earlier period than the other mystical cults. In this, as presumably in the other “mysteries,” of which we have less full accounts, the processes of initiation were long and exhausting, involving severe fasts, penances and religious exercises. The Eleusinian aspirant began his noviciate in February, with the so-called lesser mysteries at Athens. He was admitted a Mystes at Eleusis the following September, but he had to wait another twelvemonth before he could enter in the final stage of his initiation. Previous to doing so, a nine days’ fast had to be very carefully observed, during which prescribed religious exercises were fulfilled. Then came the initiation in the temple itself, which consisted in an elaborate and gorgeous spectacle listened to in devout silence. At last the votary was allowed to see, handle, and taste, the sacramental objects and to pronounce the mysterious formula. A recent writer has observed that a modern Greek church on the eve of Easter Sunday may convey some idea of the scene.

But more than all the “mysteries” hitherto described, those of Mithras attained the most wide-spread popularity, during the third and fourth centuries. The worship of the Persian Mithras, originally the God of daylight (the Mitra of the Vedas), but subsequently under Zoroastrianism, the chief sun-god, was introduced into the Roman Empire by the Cilician pirates about B.C. 80. The secret cultus, however, did not receive full official sanction till A.D. 100. From this time it became an increasingly powerful factor in the religious life of the Roman world till its final suppression, in the year 376, by Theodosius.

The Mithraic rites seem to have varied little from their first introduction into the empire. Though all or most of the mysteries had many points in common with the noviciate of the Christians, there is none in which the likeness is so marked as in the Mithraic.

“The principal rites of the worship of Mithras,” says the late Mr. King (The Gnostics and their Remains, p.122), “have a very curious resemblance to those subsequently established in the Catholic Church ... The Neophytes were admitted by the rite of Baptism the initiated at their assemblies solemnly celebrated a species of Eucharist; whilst the courage and endurance of the candidate for admission into the sect were tested by twelve consecutive trials called the ‘tortures,’ undergone within a cave constructed for the purpose; all which tortures had to be passed through before participation in the mysteries was granted to the aspirant.”

Many of the contemporary Gnostic sects undoubtedly drew much from Mithraism, which is also the ultimate source of much of the cryptic lore of the secret societies of the middle ages and of modern times. As in the case of many other ancient cults, the follower of Mithras was indicated by a mystic mark or sign on the forehead, (cf., “the mark of the beast.”) The Mithraic Eucharist was celebrated with water and bread in a manner precisely similar to the Christian.

The bread used was a round cake, emblematic of the solar disc and called Mizd, a name in which some scholars see the origin of the word missa, as designating the sacrifice of the mass, the cake of which is precisely similar in form. During the Mithraic probation of forty days, it is alleged, the aspirant lay naked for several nights on snow and was afterwards scourged for the space of two days. In the museum at Innsbruck are to be seen certain Mithraic tablets on which are portrayed the twelve tests of initiation. Large numbers of Mithraic inscriptions and amulets have been preserved, many of which indicate the horrors of initiation; besides the lying in snow and the scourging, terrors of all kinds (the original of modern masonic “apprentice” rites) stretchings upon a Procrustean bed, contact with fire, fastings in the wilderness, &c., &c. Several distinct degrees of initiation are mentioned, which seem to have been ranged in series of triplets. After the primary initiation the first grade was that of warrior of Mithras, which was followed by the lion and the bull. They were the lower or earthly grades. The candidate then passed through the grades which belonged to the region of Ather, those of the vulture, the ostrich and the raven respectively. He then reached the sphere of pure fire, through the grades of Griphon, Perses and the Sun. Last of all complete union with the divine nature was attained, through. the grades of father eagle, father and father of fathers. Even he who had attained the lowest grade, that of warrior, was supposed to consider himself separate from the world. It is alleged by Tertullian that when offered a laurel crown, as for example, at any festivity, he was to repudiate it with the words, “My crown is Mithras.” The rites of the Mithras cultus were performed in a sacred cave on the side of a hill. Several of these caves have been discovered at various places, including the Roman military stations on the Pauian and Rhaetian frontier. They vary in dimensions, many of them being quite small. The Mithraic ritual obviously did not involve gorgeous dramatic representations such as the Eleusinian and other ancient mysteries, being doubtless externally altogether simple in character, though the great Mithras cave or temple on the Capitoline hill at Rome, which was destroyed in 378 by order of Theodosius, must have been of some pretensions, as was probably the case with others in the larger towns of the empire. There are few more numerous remains of the religious life of the last ages of antiquity than the dedicatory inscriptions to Deo Solis Invictae Mithrae. The usual figure represents Mithras performing the mystic sacrifice at the shrine; a young man in flowing robes is seen kneeling on a bull, one hand seizing its head and the other plunging a sword into its neck. A dog, a snake, and a scorpion are drinking the blood which flows from the wound. A raven is seated on a rock beside Mithras. The sun (Phoebus), the moon, (Luna), and seven stars, probably representing the seven Persic archangels, the sacred fires, &c., also figure in many Mithraic talismans. That Mithras soon absorbed Apollo, Helios and all other solar deities goes without saying. But of the fusion Mithras with other divinities we shall have more to say presently. The subject of Mithraic Symbolism is fairly exhausted in King’s Gnostics, pp.114-17.

Rivalling the worship of Mithras in popularity and diffusion among the Pagan population of the Roman Empire was that of Serapis, the celebrated statue of whom was brought over from Sinope to Alexandria by order of Ptolemy Soter in the 3rd century B.C. The God of Pontus soon became identified as the god of the dead with the Egyptian Osiris (osiris-apis), and later of course with Jupiter and a crowd of other divinities. The great statue and temple in Alexandria constituted one of the wonders of the world. The Serapeum reared its collossal structure above every other building of the great city. A flight of a hundred steps raised the entrance above the ground. Within, the gigantic statue of the god, composed of all the precious metals plated together, towered up to the roof, and with its outstretched arms touched either side of the great central hall. The Serapeum contained numerous passages and special apartments, while underneath was the great library. If many Christian practices are to be found in Mithraicism, perhaps still more are discoverable in Serapeanism. The first we hear of the monastic life is in connexion with the worship of Serapis, the Alexandrian temple itself containing numerous cells for those who intended devoting themselves to serving the God by a life of abstinence. Later on, the Christians formed their ascetic establishments on the precise model of these. The temple was famous for its great “functions,” in which awe-inspiring “miracles” were displayed. The building must have been fitted up with numerous mechanical appliances for producing spectacular effects, including the celebrated brazen disc of the sun floating in mid-air. The sick were supposed to secure their recovery by advice given in a dream sent by the God in the temple of Aesculapius. Besides the Serapeum itself, the whole of Alexandria was full of shrines, pillars, and other monuments to the great God.

The cultus of Serapis, more than any other of the contemporary religions, succeeded in inspiring a certain awe, if not actual acknowledgment, on the part of the Christians. In a remarkable letter of the Emperor Hadrian, preserved by the historian Vopisend, it is stated that

“those who worship Serapis are also Christians, even such as call themselves Bishops of Christ being devoted to Serapis. The patriarch himself when he comes to Egypt is forced by some to worship Serapis, by others Christ. One God exists for all, and Him do Christians, Jews, and Gentiles worship.”

This is interesting, not merely as showing the loose and shifting character of the Christian religion even in the second century, but as illustrating the then orthodox attitude of men of culture on the subject of religion. It has been remarked, as bearing on the above quotation, that the conventional portrait of the founder of Christianity bears so strong a resemblance to the majestic head of the Serapis as to lead to the inference that it was borrowed from the latter. In any case, the relations between the Church and the worship of Serapis would seem to have been exceptional, since, as is well known, it was the last of the great Pagan cults to be overthrown, many of the Christians dreading that any violence to the sacred image would involve the destruction of heaven and earth. The fall of Serapis gave the coup de grace to Paganism in the cities. If the great Serapis could be thrown down and trampled under foot with impunity, it was obvious that the old Gods were one and all impossible any longer as objects of worship. The spirit animating the ancient religion had to satisfy itself henceforth with images of the Virgin and saints, and with relic-worship, which, from this time (the end of the 4th century), began to progress by leaps and bounds.

It would hardly be too much to say that Mithras and Serapis were the only Gods with which the educated Pagan seriously concerned himself from the middle of the third century onwards. The old Graeco-Roman divinities, the Gods of Olympus, and of the Pantheon, continued still in art and literature and in official ceremonies, but they failed to secure the real devotion of the average cultured inhabitant of the cities. Everything tended towards a Pantheism in which the sun, the source of life and light as personified, was regarded as the highest visible expression of the divine, and with it Mithras and often Serapis were identified, the older official gods being in their turn identified with these. With this solar worship that of the moon, as Isis, the consort of the sun, was often united. For those of a more reflective turn, the visible sun was of course only the manifestation and symbol of the great spiritual power of the universe. Such probably represents, as nearly as possible, the state of mind of the average man of education, the citizen of Rome, of Alexandria, Nicomedia, Ephesus, Antioch, during the third and fourth centuries. It is the view, moreover, expressly adopted by Julian in his essay on the sovereign Sun. The great part which solar worship played in all the ancient religions of the East, which had for long been the most popular worships throughout the Empire, naturally contributed to the spread of this Pan-Solism. That Baal, Amen-Ra, Mithras, Serapis, Dionysus, Apollo, Jupiter, were different forms in which the Sovereign deity, the Sun, embodied himself at different times and places as the object of worship among men, became the prevalent notion. The attachment of the later Pagan Emperors to solar worship is well known. Eliobalus sought to make the Syrian Baal worship the supreme cultus of the empire. Aurelian was untiring in erecting temples and altars to the Sun. Even Constantine, after his supposed conversion, was with good reason suspected throughout his life of secret attachment to Sun worship; all his coins are inscribed on the reverse with the figure of time sun and the words dei solis invicti. That this was the case with other less distinguished converts from Paganism there can be little doubt. But if the more important Deities were resolved by the later Pagan into personifications of the Sun, the countless host of divinities – gods and goddesses – of the second, third, and fourth rank became increasingly regarded as mere daimonii, whom it was necessary to worship and propitiate as vice-gerents of the supreme power, and as possessing a legitimate place in the divine hierarchy, but not as heretofore ruling by their own right. The transition from this to angel and saint-worship was obviously easy. The writings of Proclus, the last great Pagan theologian, which formulate this view of the Pagan side, were adopted bodily by the pseudo-Dionysius and in the form of his treatise became the basis of the mediaeval catholic theology.

The above leads us to the consideration of the two leading currents of doctrine – the one philosophic and the other quasi-philosophic – which went on pari passu, with the rise and progress of the Neo-Paganism. The first-mentioned, the mystical reaction against the previous scepticism, is directly traceable to the influence of oriental thought and of the mystical tendencies of the age reacting on the older Greek philosophies, especially that of the Pythagoreans and of Plato. Of the Neo-Cynics, who professed no doctrine beyond that of the “simplification of life,” otherwise expressed, Asceticism, it is only necessary to make mention, as showing the tendency of current thought on its practical side. The doctrines which received their final form in the Neo-Platonic philosophy all turned upon the freeing of the soul from the imperfections of sense and its union with the divinity. The soul in its mundane state is burdened with the ignorance and guilt of sensible matter. The aim of the philosopher is to free his soul from sense, and raise it as a purely intelligible essence to oneness with the supreme intelligence whence all things flow. The pure intelligible principle is blurred and confounded by the essential nothingness and falsehood of sense. At first, the emancipation of intellect from sense was conceived as attainable by reason, but later on only by a mystical ecstasy or internal illumination. Such was the theoretical basis of the movement in question. It was the philosophic formulation of the problems then occupying men’s attention.

The parallel and more avowedly theosophical movement – that of Gnosticism – was an amalgam of the oriental cults, chiefly those of Babylonia and Persia, with a clash of Platonism, various Judaeo-Christian notions, especially that of an atoning Messiah, being incorporated. Here everything was personified – the freeing of the soul from the impurities and the bondage of sense and matter was to be accomplished by the possession of the gnosis or true knowledge which was revealed to the elect by the redeeming Aeon or Christ, who, issuing from the highest God, became incarnate for the purpose of restoring the human soul, immersed in matter, to its native purity. The manner of this incarnation was one of the points of distinction between the various systems, as also the position and function of the series of beings or Aeons (apparently conceived as in a way existent in time and space) which formed the intermediate links between the lowest principle or world of matter, and the highest principle, “the unspeakable God.” In the fourth century the system of Manes (circa 214-278), with its Zoroastrian doctrine of the perennial opposition of a good and evil principle, spread widely and absorbed much of the older Gnosticism. We refrain from entering in further detail into the various phases of neo-pythagorean or neo-platonic and gnostic thought, familiar as they are to everyone who has ever opened a church history or a history of philosophy. Those who failed to find the Pagan cults and mysteries, with their fragmentary doctrines, alone satisfying as a solution of the problems which disturbed them, thought they discovered a more complete and systematic theory of the universe as regards the dominant categories of sin and holiness, good and evil, “light and darkness,” in Neoplatonism or Gnosticism as the case might be. The more thoughtful and cultivated man naturally chose the philosophical theory, the less cultivated and more impulsive and superstitious, the semi-mythological one. Meanwhile the Christian Church gathered volume, and attained precision in its doctrine from its trituration with these various sects, unconsciously assimilating some of their theories, consciously opposing itself to others, but always remaining distinct as an organization, till its elevation by Constantine to supremacy over the moral and intellectual life of the Roman world, from which time it was safe from serious disintegration.

Yet another influence which was developing itself simultaneously with the development of Neo-Paganism, Neo-Platonism and Gnosticism throughout the second, third, and fourth centuries was the enormous spread of magical practices and the concurrent rise of astrology as a distinct belief. It was not only a concern for the future life which animated the denizen of the Empire. This world also assumed a new and mysterious aspect. The orthodox and official ceremonies and sacrifices were looked upon as antiquated and flat, and refuge was increasingly sought for in new and strange charms. Every difficulty was sought to be got over, every wish to be fulfilled by means of amulets and incantations. Sorcery of course had existed from the earliest times, and laws had frequently been enacted against it, especially against injury to agricultural property (blighting of crops, &c.) by magical means, but in early times, save for the public religious exercises of the community, which of course partook of a magical character, it was an exceptional thing. Now, on the other hand, the public exercises were held of small account, and private magic became the order of the day. Astrology had also existed as the peculiar function of the Chaldeans from a very early period, but in the Graeco-Roman world, at least, it did not attain any great importance till the time of which we are treating. Now astrologers, no less than magicians, were consulted by all, and were generally to be found permanently installed in the households of the wealthy. What was before merely a sporadic phenomenon of ancient social life now became a part of its daily round.

The issue of every undertaking, unimportant no less that important, was sought to be ascertained by the stars. Disease was treated by charms; enemies sought to be destroyed by incantations. Amulets were worn by all. The gems and charms of this period are well-known to antiquaries. The enormous fame and following of such wonder-workers as Apollonius of Tyana, Peregrinus and Alexander of Abnotichos in the first and second centuries, will give us some idea of what was going on on a smaller scale all over the empire – in every city and village – until the final fall of Paganism. The prevailing cults and philosophies had all of them their necromantic side, or their theory of magic. As a matter of course, Christianity absorbed this tendency. The miracles of saints, the magical powers of relics, of the sign of the cross, the invocation of Christian sacred names, the repetition of paternosters and aves in course of time superseded the more obviously Pagan magic of the fourth century. The ease with which the ancient creed was suppressed and the rapidity with which the Christian swelled its ranks after its official establishment, show not only the moribund character of the Pagan forms, but how the difference between the two had become merely a question of names and external rites. The epistle of the Emperor Julian exhorting the Pagan priesthood to set an example to their adherents of sobriety of life, &c., might easily have been the encyclical of a Christian metropolitan. The worship previously accorded to Isis was now given to the Virgin, the same black images, some of which exist to this day, doing duty in the new role.

From this short sketch, which might be indefinitely expanded on various sides, it will be evident to any unprejudiced mind that Christianity ultimately became the highest embodiment of a movement of which at first it was merely the symptom, and to the expression of which it could originally lay no exclusive claim. The germs of this movement were already present before it. Other expressions of introspective individualism and mysticism developed independently and alongside of Christianity, and to this it was indebted for many of its doctrines and ceremonies. The religion and philosophy of the ancient world went out in a creed which it had itself helped to build up. In the fourth century, as the late Mr. King well observes in a note to his translation of Gregory Nazianzen’s invective [3], the state of the empire under Julian resembled that of England under Mary (and he might have added of other countries also during the latter half of the 16th century.)

“The new religion,” he observes, “in each case was held by a small minority, but well-organised and extremely noisy; the rest of the population, except in certain districts where local causes kept up zeal for the ancient religion, were entirely indifferent to principles, but eager for the plunder of the temple lands and treasures, as of those of the abbeys and cathedrals. This state of things clearly appears from Julian’s complaints in the Mistopagon.”

Thus economical causes combined, with political and speculative, to ensure the success of the new creed.

The exercise of the Pagan religion was unsuccessfully attempted to be effaced by the edicts of various emperors throughout the fourth century. It was not until near the close of the century that Theodosius, by laws of ferocious severity, succeeded in suppressing the public manifestations of’ Paganism Even then we cannot doubt that in the country districts, out of the way of the imperial ministers and functionaries, the edicts were more often evaded than not. The very word, which came to denote the ancient religion – Paganism, or the belief of the rural populations – itself indicates the tenacity with which the peasant clung to the “creed outworn.”

In looking back over a tract of time, which is long past, it is difficult to keep one’s sense of proportion. It is hard to realise the change, economical and speculative, which was gradually creeping over the Roman world from the Antonines to Theodosius. We know that within this long period social life must have undergone a transformation far reaching and deep. Yet, viewed in our perspective, it seems comparatively slight. Too many links are wanting in the chain, too many threads in the woof to give us a true idea of the process. Everything seems foreshortened. The three centuries and a half which have elapsed since the last great epoch of organic transformation in society – that which saw the overthrow of the mediaeval civilisation, and which, like the preceding one, took the form primarily of a revolution in religious belief and observance – has been fertile in such vast changes that all other corresponding periods of change and transition seem to move imperceptibly in comparison. The impassable gulf which divides modern life externally, no less than in its habits of thought, from all previous ages, dwarfs and foreshortens the other great transitional periods of history. Progress, i.e., the content of time, has become immeasurably compressed; the development of a thousand years is now concentrated in a hundred, a hundred in ten, &c. The change from the second to the fifth century was, as far as the essentials of life were concerned, though great, yet not so great as the length of time would lead us to imagine at the first moment of reflection. A period of three or four centuries had still to be passed over before society had finally succeeded in definitively reconstituting itself on a positive basis in what we know as the middle ages. Thus, if the ancient world was long a-dying, no less long did its corpse remain unburied – still the ideal of glory and beauty to reflective men.


1. It should be observed that already in the first century the practice of burial had begun to supplant that of burning.

2. See Burkhard’s Der Kaiser Constantin und seine Zeit.

3. Bohn’s Library.


Transcriber’s Note

1*. Bax bought the monthly magazine Time, which he did not want to turn into a Socialist journal, but rather into a broader and progressive cultural paper. He apparently sold it or closed it down in 1897 (evidence from Kapp’s biography of Eleanor Marx.) The only issues which appear to survive are in Cambridge University Library for 1890 and the first two months of 1891.


Last updated on 14.1.2006