One thing everybody knows about Rome is that it fell. Just why it did is still debated. Classicists can count 200-plus reasons for the dissolution—or evolution—of what was once the known world’s superpower. Fall, however, is a sexier word. It goes well with caricatures of Neronian debauchery fondly promoted in 19th century moralizing paintings or in movies like Fellini’s leering Satyricon. And it evokes that other Fall in a long-ago garden.
Taking cues from Gibbon, we graft decline onto fall and use it as a stick to beat ourselves. Granted, a caning might help. Still, we should be cautious in drawing analogies between the classical world and our own. By reading back into history today’s social milieu and preoccupations, we look into the past but see only ourselves.
A recent Sunday sermon was a rousing example of rearward projection. Our priest had read Greg Scandlen’s essay in The Federalist: “What Today’s Christians Can Learn from Antiquity about Living in a Pagan World.” Fr. J. came to the pulpit with the passion of a convert. Anxious to testify to his conviction, he skipped the day’s readings and dove headlong into his talk. [This was a Tridentine Mass in which the Gospel is duly recited in Latin on the altar. A second narration in English is optional, though rarely omitted.]
Echoing Scandlen, Fr. J. insisted that we identify ourselves for what we are: a pagan nation:
I have become increasingly convinced that we are now living in a pagan society. Our country is pagan. Our civilization is pagan. Pagan, not just secular. I used to think, yes our society is very secular, but certainly we are not quite as bad as was the pagan world in the time before Christianity. Now I have to admit, yes we are that bad.
Jeremiads are catnip to my declinist mood. It would have been easy to shout, “Amen!” But something held me back. Something, perhaps, in the sermon’s fixation on sexual matters alone as the axis of our fall from grace. And there is something askew in the simplification of complex differences in dimensions of mind and experience between the ancient world and our own.
We learn from history only if we draw the right lessons from it. The radical distance between the Roman world and our own is far-reaching. To say that conditions today are “shockingly similar” to those in Rome at the advent of Christianity is to confuse symptoms with causes.
This, from the sermon, is discomforting:
The chickens of the Enlightenment have finally come home to roost. The new paganism is nothing but the triumph of the Revolution that has been going on for over 200 years, the logical conclusion of secularism and the separation of Church and State.
Broad-brush condemnation of the Enlightenment together with implicit nostalgia for the coercive powers of the old Christendom is unlikely to persuade anyone outside the choir. In the culture war we are in, I want my side—the Judeo-Christian side—to win. That means acknowledging a vanished, often alien world in all its intricacies without shrinking it to mirror our own social situation. It means refusing to bend history to fit homiletics.
Starting with contraception . . . the very fabric of our society seems to be tearing apart, one seam at a time.
That opening jab at undifferentiated means of contraception flattens antiquity into a blue print for modern sociological and doctrinal complaints, low birthrates among them. Yes, the Roman empire experienced periods of worrisomely low birthrates. But to pin the tail on contraception and suggest that conditions then were analogous to our own is naïve at best. Inflated claims of “an extreme shortage of women” due to abortion and infanticide—though these were practiced—send up a red flare. It substitutes polemics for historical facts.
Harsh material conditions kept population growth at roughly zero throughout the ancient world. Evidence for sex ratios in the empire is spotty and hotly contested. What exists contradicts shrill accusations that pagan Rome had “a huge deficit” of marriageable women. The Cambridge Dictionary of Classical Civilizations summarizes the conclusions of six recent authoritative studies on classical demography:
It is highly probable that women did not live as long as men (maternal mortality is one relevant factor though its relevance should not be exaggerated), and that males very slightly outnumbered females in the population.
Childbirth was the biggest killer of adult women, whether slaves or senators’ wives. Consequently, remarriage was frequent in Roman society. Does “shortage” apply to young women—girls, really—available for a first marriage? Or to a widower’s second or third? Was the reputed shortfall among Romans at home or on the frontier of newly conquered regions where female citizens were understandably few? Where in this “shortage” do we calculate the ban against marriage among legionaries in the early empire?
The ancient world was wracked with disease. It suffered viral epidemics, bacterial infections, and amoebic disorders consistent with low levels of hygiene and sanitation similar to those of today’s Third World. Chronic warfare was a relentless drain on manpower. Infant mortality was steep. (One in three children died in their first year; only one in two lived until ten.) Because fertility mattered, a woman’s inability to conceive was grounds for divorce.
So, yes, contraceptive potions and pessaries—makeshift and dubious— were available. But what can we reliably say about it? Historians cannot determine to what extent they were used by the majority of women—not prostitutes—in the ancient world. Given the scourge of childhood death, plus risk of penalty for sterility, it is reasonable to argue that married women would be inclined to enhance their chances of conception.
The success of Christianity in the ancient world owed itself to more than the blood of martyrs and the good works of the faithful. It was rooted in the organizational structure of the Roman Empire, in its vast territorial spread, in the mobility and avenues of communication facilitated by it. Protected and advanced by successive Christian emperors after Constantine, Christianity came to serve as an instrument of social discipline. The cohesion it provided was inseparable from political authority rigorously applied.
To what extent was the transformation of Christianity from a tiny, scattered sect to the shaping force of Western culture a triumph of the Christian faith or a triumph of the Roman state? On the answer to that question depends the way we address the culture we inhabit.
Steeped in gods, the pagan world was deeply religious. Religion was a matter of ritual, not dogma, and proper worship was crucial to the wellbeing of both the state and individual households. Ethics remained the province of philosophers and moralists who defended the sense of duty—pietas—at the core of what it meant to be Roman. Men might wonder about the nature of the gods, or to what extent they concerned themselves with humanity. But there was no question that they existed. They were significant powers on whom men depended. The pagan temperament was not nihilist.
By contrast, modern man has put God out of mind. Modernity declared him dead or missing some time ago, an outdated hypothesis. Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray identified the mark of modernity as “the will to atheism.” If God is present in the midst of men, then man is obliged to recognize himself as a being made by God with a distinct essence, nature, and destiny. He is not free to fashion himself ex nihilo according to his own wishes.
What is the advancing transgender phenomenon if not an extreme exercise in self-design? What we face today is not paganism. It is the desolate freedom of the nihilist.
In the lingering twilight of Christendom, we were not really listening to the words of Christ: “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36) We did not have to listen. Now we do. Perhaps, then, we should summon a bit of gratitude for the reminder that desolation is man’s natural state.
Spera in Deo.
Note: This essay appeared first in The Federalist, October 6, under the title “Christians Shouldn’t Approach Today’s World As If It’s Pagan Rome.”