A Pagan Rome?

Something that struck me about the rise and spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire and later on the Western World was how much it differed from the predominant religions in the region. The Roman religion, like the religions of many of their neighbors, was an ethnic one. Romans worshiped Roman gods (who they cribbed from the Greeks, of course); Germans worshiped Germanic gods, Egypt and Nubia had their own pantheon, the Phoenicians (including the Carthaginians) had their own gods, and so on. The Roman State paid tribute to Jupiter and his cronies, but they were open to most other religions – and in fact the Romans often adopted foreign gods into their pantheon, or at least modified their own conception classically Roman deities with ideas and concepts from other religions.

Judaism, of course, is where the difference comes from. The worship of these pagan deities didn’t require exclusivity – you could pay your tribute to Jupiter or Athena or Re, and you didn’t necessarily take issue with the fact that your neighbor worshiped a different god. Judaism was different. It said, no, there is only one God, and it’s our God. The others are false idols. And yet that’s as far as Judaism took it – it was still an Ethnic religion. Judaism was meant for the Israelites, and by the tenants of Judaism everyone else could follow whatever religion they wanted to (Unless they worshiped Baal, of course. It seems that lots of cultures took issue with Baal worship – the Romans painted the Carthaginians in a very negative light due to their worship of Baal. Whether this is because Baal worshipers actually practiced human sacrifice, or if that was Roman propaganda, or some combination of both, historians still argue about). Just this exclusivity gave the Romans enough problems that they persecuted Jews, despite the Roman Empire being, on the whole, relatively tolerant of anyone who could agree to the stipulation that yes, you can worship whatever god you want, but you must worship the State first.

Enter Christianity. It kept the idea of a single true God, to the exclusion of all other deities, from Judaism; but it ditched the ethnic link that most other religions in the region had until then. Like many other religions and cults, Christianity gained some popularity in Rome, but something about it – perhaps its proselytizing nature – led to it becoming more and more widespread, despite and perhaps because of its persecution, until it became the state religion of the Roman Empire. Mithraism, for example, was popular for a time; but it didn’t have the same staying power that Christianity seemed to.

But what if Christianity never took hold in Rome, at least not as an official state religion? What if like countless cults and beliefs before it, it spread through the Roman Empire before burning out and being replaced by something else? I would argue that this would have a HUGE impact on the latter history of Western Europe. Many of the same “barbarian” kingdoms who helped bring about the fall of the Roman Empire would later try to emulate it – sometimes before it even truly fell. Most of these kingdoms would convert to Christianity, often not because the subjects of said kingdoms actually believed in that religion, but because adopting the state religion of the late, great Roman Empire lent legitimacy to the ruler’s claim to the rest of Rome’s lands. It is from this time period that we have art depicting Christian events with a very Pagan twist to them, such as depictions of Jesus wielding a spear and - possibly - with a missing eye, borrowing heavy from Norse traditions and depictions of Odin.

Without Christianity, what would these successor kingdoms behave like? What would a kingdom like Charlemagne’s look like without a Pope? Would Europe have been far more religiously divided, and would Rome still hold such a prominent place in our culture, 1600 years later? I’m under no illusion that a strong state-sponsored religion is in any way necessary for an Empire to form and justify its conquests – but it certainly helps. More than that, Medieval Europe was a violent and war-torn place, even though religious differences were relatively minor. What would a Europe full of competing ethnic religions look like a thousand years later?

Christianity wasn’t that different from Mithraism, which was a major belief among the Roman soldiers. Going from a polytheistic system like the standard Roman belief system to a duothestic system in which there is a good god, Mithra, and a bad god, Ahura Mazda, and then on to the monotheistic system of Christianity wasn’t that big a leap.

While it would be hard to tell for Europe the “vikings” may have been trading partners and if large nation states still developed it may have been an economic power earlier.

As slavery was initially banned to prevent Christians from being sold to Muslims slavery would have persisted for a much longer time.

Medieval Europe was a violent and war-torn place in part due to the actions of Christians and religious based acts of violence like the Baltic Crusades as an example. I don’t know if we could guess if another major religious practice would have been put in it’s place or if the large stable nation states would have developed.

Remember that the viking age was preceded by Christian traders began to refuse to trade with pagans and Muslims. The trade imbalances and protectionism are better thought as the cause of the raids and warfare and not some romanticized savage noble myth about finding a moon stone as is sometime told in modern mythology.

Far more wealth was brought into the Baltic by trade than ever was by raids.

Maybe at the most basic summary of their beliefs (as in “how many gods do you believe in”), Mithraism isn’t that different from Christianity. But in the way it was practiced, there were a number of huge differences.

First of all, Mithras worship wasn’t actually anything like the Iranian religion where Mithra and Ahura Mazda were alone as deities. Most Mithras temples had shrines to numerous other gods, and one of the most commonly repeated icons from that cult shows Mithras dining with Sol, as in Sol Invictus. Followers of the Mithraic mysteries weren’t expected to abandon worship of other gods, nor did the cult govern their everyday life. Instead, it did call for a number of rituals, but those could be practiced alongside worship of the other gods.

Even more importantly, the number of gods in Christianity isn’t what set it apart from other religions; it was the inherent intolerance of any other belief system. A follower of Zeus might say “Jupiter is just another name for Zeus; so is Odin, but viewed through a very different lens.” Or he might say, “We worship Zeus here in Greece because Zeus is in charge here, but the gods guiding and protecting distant lands are different, and just as real.” Meanwhile, a Jewish person at the time might say, “The Greeks worship a myriad of gods, none of whom are real - they are hollow idols, but that’s just fine, because they are Greeks. I do not need to bring them to worship the Jewish God, because the Jewish God is meant for the Hebrew People, with whom he signed a covenant in the days of Abraham. As long as they follow these seven laws while in my land and don’t force me to pay service to their gods, I do not care who they worship.” Christianity is very, very different. Christianity says “There is one God, and if you don’t worship him you will be in Hell for eternity, so it is my duty to convert as many people to His worship as possible.”

The cult of Mithras didn’t do that. Sure, they indoctrinated new members into the cult, and in that way you could say that they “proselytized”. But just because you joined the cult of Mithras didn’t mean you had to stop worshiping Jupiter or Zeus or Sol Invictus, or the Imperial Roman Cult. It just meant that you learned the secret handshake and hidden lore of Mithras, and followed their rituals, and so on. You didn’t STOP believing whatever you believed before, or worshiping whatever gods you worshiped before – you just added one more god to the list. If a Roman Mithras worshiper was caught in a horrible storm at sea, he would still pray to Neptune for deliverance. A Roman Christian wouldn’t do that.

Yes Charlemagne used his military force to compel all his subject peoples to become Christian.

The question is if those forced conversions were what lead to stable nation states or not, but the willingness of Christian’s to kill to force conversions and their intolerance for all other religions is probably the main differentiation until the followers of Muhammad produced a similar offshoot with similar views.

Judaism had a far less universal history of forced conversion.

So – without the religious “Us vs. Them” factor that led to cutting off trade to the Norse, the Norse kingdoms may have had a more peaceful relationship with the kingdoms of southern Europe, trading instead of pillaging?

Slavery did persist for a long time though, while chattel slavery declined after the fall of the Roman Empire, serfdom rose to prominence throughout the feudal period. How much of that shift was truly caused by religion as opposed to economics?

Except Christianity took hold before Mithraism in the Empire.

And pretty much Mithraism was exclusive to men and usually soldiers.

There was already mostly peaceful trade, which was stopped and destroyed that economy helping destabilize the power structure in the Baltic and to justify the raids.

The violence happened after that trading stopped with non-Christians.

Demand from the Islamic world for slaves funded the Carolingian Empire and established the city of Venice. It was a primary industry in Europe despite any changes in the Roman Empire.

This is pretty much exactly what I’m driving at – Christianity is the earliest religion to combine zero (or very low) tolerance for Syncretism (combining beliefs, traditions, and practices from different religions in an inclusive way – so Christianity borrowing Pagan traditions for its own holidays is NOT an example, but Romans agreeing with their neighbors that their local gods exist, or are manifestations of the same beings that the Romans give different names to, IS an example) with a strong proselytizing drive. Judaism isn’t very Syncretic either, but it doesn’t often proselytize (there are a few brief periods in history where Jews did proselytize, such as during the Hellenistic age, but these cases tend to be few and far between, and not involve very large numbers of conversions).

This combination (which as you point out does appear again in Islam) seems to be a big part of why Christianity was so successful in converting Europe and spreading so far and wide, but it also seems to be behind many of the worst events in Christian history – the crusades, inquisitions, and so on. I’m interested in what a Europe that was not driven by this combination would look like.

It should be pointed out that, while still not justified under a modern morality, the intolerance of the Christian religion to other faiths or practices is what lead to their persecution.

From a modern context just view how angry people get when a Jehovah Witness refuses to recite the pledge of allegiance at school. Refusing to offer incense to Cesar or participate in feasts is largely what lead to their persecution.

You’re definitely not wrong, though I would argue that Christians’ (and Jews’) reluctance to participate in other religions’ festivals isn’t necessarily an example of intolerance per say – or at the very least, it’s JUSTIFIED intolerance, in the same way that we don’t call someone a racist if he prefers to date people of similar ethnic and cultural background, but we do call them a racist if they prefer to HIRE people of a similar ethnic and cultural background. The ironic part is that, as soon as they took power, they proceeded to persecute everyone else just as much or sometimes more than they themselves were persecuted beforehand.

Too late to edit, but:

to clarify what I mean by “justified” because I don’t think that’s the right word – if you choose to not celebrate the birth of Jesus and therefore do nothing for Christmas, because you aren’t Christian, I wouldn’t call you intolerant. If you pass a law saying no one can celebrate Christmas, I would call you intolerant. So when Christians didn’t want to worship the old Pagan gods or take part in their festivals, I am ok with that. When they outlawed any mention of the old gods as soon as they took power, that was intolerant.

Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and later rulers like Charlemagne wishing to invoke that historical providence to cement legitimacy may have happened despite what religion it was.

Without Constantine Christians wouldn’t have been powerful enough to engage in wide spread persecution of other religions. He started the enforced orthodoxy almost instantly and despite the common stories to the contrary almost all Christian conversions were forced through human ownership or the sword through the later rise of Europe.

While in a modern context I would actively fight against the persecution of the early Christians just as I do so with modern issues there is no claim of any morality in my post. It is simply just what the historical evidence demonstrates if one can take efforts to control ones’ own biases.

You’re not wrong, and if we take “right” and “wrong” out of it, then yes – Christianity (and to a lesser extent Judaism, but the lack of conversions helps with this) and its most basic tenets just didn’t “play nicely with others” which was a problem for anyone seeking to control a population that included both Christians and Pagans. Christianity pretty much had to either end up on top, or wiped out, in a geopolitical sense.

You have to wonder how differently things might have gone if someone like Julian the “Apostate” got what he wanted. He got a bad rap, I think, probably because for the vast majority of history, the people writing about him were pretty devout Christians. But when you actually look at the laws he passed – they hurt Christianity, but really, they were intended to bring it back down to the same level that all the other beliefs were at before Constantine. From a modern lens, he seems more tolerant than the Christian emperors, assuming you care about tolerance for anyone OTHER than Christians. But could he have ever gotten what he wanted, or was it too late, by that point? Rome already had a very sizable Christian population by this point, and the beliefs at the time wouldn’t have tolerated being just one religion among many.

and interestingly enough, Ahura Mazda was the “good” god of the Zoroastrians. Was there conflict between the two groups or did Zoroastrians just start out as the Mithraist version of Satanists?

I have no idea where you get the idea that Ahura Mazda was the evil deity in Roman Mithraism. Roman Mithraism bore only a slight resemblance to the Persian religion.

AFAIK, Ahura Mazda was never part of the Roman mysteries.

Maybe no Constantinople. Maybe Islam would have taken hold earlier, and covered the whole of Africa and western Asia. Any pockets of Christianity without Rome as a “vehicle” would have established pockets in various places, like the Masons. Maybe they would have Christianized outliers from Roman influence places like Russia, Scandinavia, Slavic states.

How could there have been an Islam without Christianity?

Not saying there wouldn’t be either. Just that Christianity will not have been spread via imperial Rome. But that’s a good second question there. What spawned a reinterpretation of OT to become the Koran?

The Roman Empire was a big place–chattel slavery was extremely widespread in former Roman Africa and what we’d today call the Levant and Turkey, even up to the 19th century.

There are cultural/historical reasons that Western Europe went the route of serfdom instead of chattel slavery (albeit as an example, when the Domesday book was compiled in 1086 something like 10% of England were chattel slaves–so its practice wasn’t unheard of even in Western Europe for over 600 years after the fall of the Western Empire.)

Actually because the written histories are so spotty, and only from the Western European side, we don’t really know what started the Viking Age and what you mention here is just one of many plausible theories. It’s also possible there was no discrete “start” to the Viking age, that the Norse pagans had always engaged in some level of raiding and it just gradually increased over time as their population increased and the quality and number of raiding boats they possessed increased.

Certainly their starting to raid the English coasts was a discrete development that lead to hundreds of years of Scandinavian-AngloSaxon interaction, and that likely was driven by technological advances at least partially, but there’s decent evidence the Norse had essentially raided their neighbors since time immemorial, it just became more widespread and “bigger news” later on.

The ancient world was very unstable and violent with lots of raiding that was so common place it doesn’t make the histories that have survived to the modern day.

Really the main reason Christianity spread so much is it was a more modern, thought out religion. Developed by more educated and knowledgeable people than the tribal religions which basically developed “organically” over hundreds of years from oral traditions and superstitions. When Christianity was born most of the Western world was dominated by tribal religions that didn’t much care about proselytizing and usually didn’t much care what the other tribes worshiped. The Romans were an extremely strong “tribe”, so much of the West at least to some degree adopted veneration of their Gods (many of their Gods had spread into the Italian peninsula through contact with Greek colonists who had colonized parts of the peninsula hundreds of years before the Roman Republic started acquiring vast tracts of land.)

Christianity had a few features that just made it very easy to spread:

  1. Specific promise of reward in the afterlife, which was often missing from tribal religions (which mostly focused on doing sacrifices of animals and such in exchange for good harvests or to ward off bad luck)
  2. Specific promise of eternal damnation in the afterlife if you didn’t follow Christian teachings
  3. A class of priests and religious orders that focused heavily on missionary work. Christian missionaries were extremely effective historically.
  4. An ethos that gave political and military leaders strong incentives to spread the religion “by the sword”, for God’s glory.

This isn’t really accurate, Christianity had been sweeping the Empire as a major religious force long before Constantine converted. Christianity was “spread by the sword” in the period of the pre-Renaissance largely in two areas: Saxony and the Baltic States. The Norse actually were not converted by the sword, there was significant Christian missionary activity in pagan Norse Scandinavia as evidenced by findings of merchants that sold both cross and Thor’s hammer pendants in Oslo and etc in the 900s. A series of important Norse rulers eventually adopted Christianity (most of them practiced it in conjunction with Norse paganism…which the Church probably didn’t like, but in a couple generations their offspring had dropped the paganism entirely) which is what really flipped the area Christian definitively.

Much bigger examples of Christianity spreading via conquest would be the colonization of the New World (especially in central and South America where a large portion of the indigenous peoples survived), and sub-Saharan Africa.

Islam arguably inherits way more from Judaism than Christianity, it likely still could have existed since Arab tribes were in regular contact with Jews. At the very least it’s not inconceivable something similar could have developed.