I recently read an article that offered a Christian apology to Jewish people for the wrongs committed against them. The author also acknowledged the way that Christianity was “built” on Judaism. That’s great; however, there’s a glaring omission here. Christianity was also largely “built” on the destruction and desecration of Greco-Roman polytheistic culture.
To be sure, Christians suffered under the early Empire. This was partly due to their beliefs and partly due to their behaviour. The Christian cult took root in a Roman world that was remarkably tolerant of most religions and in which co-existence was the norm; however, Christians were unique in their assertiveness to position their god as the “one true god,” their willingness to renounce their family for their god and their frequent apocalyptic predictions.
It was all too strange and disruptive for the Romans who never hesitated to take harsh action against agitators or troublemakers of any kind (this included pagan ones: in my book Brides of Rome: A Novel of the Vestal Virgins, followers of Bacchus are punished for their public disruptions).
Nonetheless, by the late 4th century and early 5th century CE, Christianity had gained considerable political power; however, the majority of Romans of all classes were still pagan. They continued to honor the gods and goddesses that they had honored since the dawn of their civilization.
To solidify Christianity as the sole religion of the Empire, early Christian leaders legalized brutal policies that persecuted pagans. This gave Christians the legal green light to commit atrocious acts of vandalism that destroyed centuries of Classical art, history and culture.
Christian vandals smashed the heads and limbs off statues of beloved gods and goddesses that had been venerated for generations. They knocked the noses off the faces, and carved crosses into the foreheads, of deities, heroes and emperors. They burned ancient texts, obliterating centuries of knowledge, literature and heritage.
These acts of vandalism robbed our Western civilization of a beautiful and important part of our own art history and culture. We’ll never know what monuments or statuary were smashed to dust, or what masterpieces of literature or learning were turned to smoke.
Pagan temples were closed and demolished, stripped of their marble to build churches. This included the oldest temple in the Forum, the Temple of Vesta, whose order of Vestal priestesses was forcibly disbanded after having kept the sacred fire burning in the temple for 1,000 years.
To usurp the importance of the Vestals, the Catholic church eventually created its own version of priestesses — nuns. Like the Vestals who were married to Rome, the nuns would be married to their god. Like the Vestals were celibate, the nuns would be celibate. Yet where the Vestals had power and privilege, the nuns would live in poverty and subservience.
To further Christianize resisters, the church usurped indigenous pagan festivals with Christian ones, the most obvious being the Saturnalia in late December which became Christmas. They created an arsenal of saints to replace the rich diversity of pagan gods and goddesses.
Symbolism and ritual from pagan traditions were also claimed to have Christian origins. The flame of Vesta became the flame in Mary’s immaculate heart. The wafers the Vestals made for offerings became the wafers of the Eucharist. The pagan temples that were still standing had crosses placed atop them. The list goes on.
Forced conversions to Christianity were common, as was the seizure of property or assets belonging to pagans. And in an unprecedented move of religious tyranny, it became illegal – upon pain of torture or death to honor Vesta or other gods and goddesses even within the sacred privacy of one’s own home.
It isn’t pleasant to hear — especially for those who hold their religion dear — but forced conversions and cultural destruction, done on a massive scale, played a significant role in the way Christianity established itself as the dominant religion. This approach set the tone for the fear and oppression of the “Dark Ages” when anything that wasn’t Christian — including science, medicine and free thought — was deemed heretical and violently suppressed.
With the advancement of humanism and secular law, Christianity has lost much of its ability to impose its beliefs on others. And now, owing to the spiritual and intellectual freedom that exists in our society, more and more people have rediscovered Vesta and other ancient traditions, most of which have evolved to reflect 21st-century humanist values and are therefore well-suited to those who identify as spiritual but not religious.
It goes without saying that I’ve had to gloss over 2,000 years of history here (and haven’t even touched on the fact that the Romans committed their share of atrocities). The impact of this period had far-reaching effects on many faiths and cultures.
My goal has been to illustrate how one world view gained dominance through the destruction of another and how, in the process, priceless works of Classical art, knowledge and culture — so relevant to the human experience for all of us in the Western world – -were lost forever.
We’ll never know how our society might have developed, especially in terms of scientific and social advancement, had one androcentric religion not held exclusive control of so many and for so long. The ancient world was brutal, but it had its forward thinkers and rays of light.
But back to the beginning: Should the Catholic church acknowledge the harms it did so long ago to Greco-Roman pagan culture? Of course, I don’t believe it will. Anti-pagan propaganda and a denial/whitewashing of history is still too prevalent for that to happen. Others have asked for this apology — pagans and Christians alike — to no meaningful avail.
Yet to me, there’s something to be said for acknowledging past harms. From the internment of Japanese Canadians during WWII to the mistreatment of First Nations children forced to endure the residential school system, an acknowledgement is as much about spreading knowledge and preventing future injustice as it is about mending fences.
For as the ancient Roman statesman Seneca the Younger tells us, errare humanum est, sed in errare perseverare diabolicum. To err is human, but to persist in error is diabolical.