Religion

Inventions of the Ancient Near East, Part 3: Tatian, Clement of Alexandria and the Battle for History

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Be not, O Greeks, so very hostilely disposed towards the Barbarians, nor look with ill will on their opinions. For which of your institutions has not been derived from the Barbarians? The most eminent of the Telmessians invented the art of divining by dreams; the Carians, that of prognosticating by the stars; the Phrygians and the most ancient Isaurians, augury by the flight of birds; the Cyprians, the art of inspecting victims. To the Babylonians you owe astronomy; to the Persians, magic; to the Egyptians, geometry; to the Phoenicians, instruction by alphabetic writing. Cease, then, to miscall these imitations inventions of your own.[1]

Thus the philosopher Tatian began his Address to the Greeks. An Assyrian by birth who was living in Rome in the mid 2nd century AD, Tatian first joined a pagan mystery cult before encountering the Christian Bible. He later described his conversion to Christianity:

I happened to meet with certain barbaric writings, too old to be compared with the opinions of the Greeks, and too divine to be compared with their errors; and I was led to put faith in these by the unpretending east of the language, the inartificial character of the writers, the foreknowledge displayed of future events, the excellent quality of the precepts, and the declaration of the government of the universe as centred in one Being.[3]

As a result, Tatian jumped into the role of a cultural critic of the society that he once embraced. The Greeks saw themselves as the height of human civilization, but Tatian argued that many of their cultural and technological triumphs originated amongst the “barbarians” that 2nd century Greeks looked down on.

Cuneiform star chart from the Royal Library of Nineveh. From the British Museum in London.

Cuneiform star chart from the Royal Library of Nineveh. From the British Museum in London.

Where we can check Tatian’s claims many of them prove to be accurate. Babylonian astronomy is well known to pre-date Greek civilization by thousands of years. Mathematical texts show us that the Egyptians made numerous advances in geometry and were able to calculate volume, the area of a triangle, and may even have developed a basic understanding of the Pythagorean Theorem long before Pythagoras.[4] And all the alphabets in the world are descended from the writing system of the Canaanites and Phoenicians which developed in the 2nd millennium BC.

So, why dispute the ages of inventions with the Greeks? Tatian’s main argument was that Judaism, and by extension Christianity, pre-dated Greek paganism and was therefore more likely to be true. Moses, after all, pre-dated Homer, for no one could agree when Homer actually lived while the histories of the Babylonians and Phoenicians established the early date of the Jews.[5]

Furthermore, he argued that Greek paganism was not only a recent invention but also immoral:

Aristotle, who absurdly placed a limit to Providence and made happiness to consist in the things which give pleasure, quite contrary to his duty as a preceptor flattered Alexander, forgetful that he was but a youth; and he, showing how well he had learned the lessons of his master, because his friend would not worship him shut him up and and carried him about like a bear or a leopard He in fact obeyed strictly the precepts of his teacher in displaying manliness and courage by feasting, and transfixing with his spear his intimate and most beloved friend, and then, under a semblance of grief, weeping and starving himself, that he might not incur the hatred of his friends.[6]

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Christians in the Roman Army: Countering the Pacifist Narrative

Christian pacifism has raised its profile in recent years, likely prompted by dissatisfaction with increasing political polarization, and promoted by some influential writers. Ideas promoted in the past century by Cecil John Cadoux and John Howard Yoder with little headway have found a modern defender in Stanley Hauerwas and a popularizer in Shane Claiborne, whose books, speaking tours and radical lifestyle have attracted many admirers if few followers.

Central to all of these authors’ ideas is the concept of the “fall of the church.” They hold that early Christianity was pacifist and anarchist in character, and rejected the ideas of military service and loyalty to the state. As Christianity came to be accepted by the Roman government at around the time of Constantine, the church became corrupted by its relationship with state power. After Constantine the church became willing to acquiesce to state power and wage war, execute people in the name of the state, force conversions, and recognize the authority of rulers other than Jesus. According to Yoder, the behavior of the early church is important because the early Christians “read the Bible in a first-century context. They read the New Testament in the same world in which it was written, in the same language in which it was written. They probably read it, therefore, with more understanding than we do. Hence, how they read the New Testament is helpful to us in our reading of the New Testament, whatever the limits of their faithfulness.”[1]

While the emperors and soldiers of the late Empire clearly used Christian symbolism, what about the army before Constantine?

I shall leave the theological portion of this debate for other websites. What I will do is examine the central historical claim of the “fall of the church” thesis: That Christians before the era of Constantine were pacifists who did not enlist in the Roman military. Unfortunately, none of the pacifist authors who have tackled this question have much experience in ancient history and it has led them to make certain errors which have led to erroneous conclusions.

First, to cover some basics of the Roman Army from Augustus to Constantine. The Roman army during this period was an all-volunteer force. No one was in the army who didn’t want to join. The Army was made up of two groups: The Legions and the Auxilia. Recruitment for the legions was open only to Roman citizens, who served for 20 years unless they were injured and medically discharged or were kicked out. On the other hand, the auxilia were recruited from the peregrini, the non-citizens of the provinces. Their term of service was 25 years, after which they received Roman citizenship as well as conubium, the right to marry a non-Roman wife but still pass on Roman citizenship to their children. The navy was smaller and accepted more non-citizens, but the model was essentially the same. As a result, service in the auxilia was a common route for social and economic advancement for those who were not Roman citizens. In 212, the emperor Caracalla decreed that everyone in the Roman Empire was now a Roman citizen, but  the auxilia did not disappear (many units were now centuries old with a storied battle history they were loath to part with), rather, they ceased to be a method for social advancement and became just another type of unit which included special units such as cavalry and archers.

Like everything else in Roman society, the army also had a pagan religious element. Festivals, sacrifices, and sacred ceremonies honoring the gods, the emperor, the Legion’s standards, and nonspecific deified ideals such as virtus and disciplina were commonplace. How Christians in the ranks would deal with the requirement to partake in these ceremonies would become a major issue.[2]

In the 1st century, we have some scraps of evidence of Christians in the Roman military. The gospel of Luke states that some soldiers (possibly from the Roman puppet Herod’s auxiliary forces) asked John the Baptist for religious advice, and he told them “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” Matthew mentions that Jesus was visited by a centurion in Capernaum who asked him to heal his sick servant. Later, the book of Acts records that Peter preached at the house of a centurion named Cornelius who was stationed in Caesarea, and the man and his household became some of the first non-Jewish converts to Christianity.[3]

From the conversion of Cornelius at about AD 39 to AD 173, we have absolutely no sources referencing Christian participation in the army. None. It may have happened, it may not have happened. Either way, we know nothing about it, so speculating is futile.[4]

In 173, we have a story that would be easy to dismiss were it not documented by five sources. During the Marcomannic Wars, emperor Marcus Aurelius was leading the Legio XII Fulminata (“Thunderstruck”) campaign along the Danube against the Quadi, erstwhile allies of Rome who had switched sides. The Quadi met the legion with a superior force and drove them to an open field away from water sources. It was a hot day, and the Quadi halted their attack to allow heat and thirst to take its toll.

Surrounded, outnumbered, out of water, growing weak from thirst and in desperate straights, what is clear from the sources is that lots of men began to pray. Soon, a thunderstorm materialized. Lightning struck the treeline where some of the Quadi had gathered, scattering many of them. Rain and hail poured from the sky. No battle could be fought in such weather, so the Quadi withdrew, which was fortunate for the Romans as they were so busy gulping down water collected in their helmets and shields that they were hardly in a position to fight.

Relief on the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome, showing Roman troops surrounded by the Quadi as a rain god arrives with a thunderstorm on the upper right.

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The Great Persecution

Christianity may have begun as a small group of a few dozen followers of Jesus, but it grew at a steady clip for the next two centuries. By the late 3rd century AD this growth had exploded into a major religion within the Roman Empire. Many members of the upper classes had converted, especially women. Christians served in the army and held positions in the civil service. Christian churches were organized throughout much of the empire, with bishops in major cities and pastors leading local congregations throughout towns and villages. Churches were built in most cities as Christians moved out of meeting in private houses to create their own places of worship.[1]

Meanwhile, the Roman Empire was falling apart in fifty years of unrest known as the Third Century Crisis. The prosperous, largely peaceful empire of the Severan Emperors gave way to constantly changing governments, weak emperors and numerous military coups. Foreign invasions threatened all of the borders of the empire and some regions of the empire sought to secede and break away. The protracted unrest caused the economy to take a nose dive. The government sought to address the problem of low tax revenues by devaluing its currency, which made the problem worse. Poverty caused many people to leave cities and become semi-serfs, working land owned by large landowners.

Romans were looking for answers as to why their once powerful empire was in decline. As in so many similar cases throughout history, many of them answered these questions by blaming religious minorities. Traditional Roman religion did not recognize any such concept as the separation of church and state. The state employed numerous priests to conduct rituals, make sacrifices and read omens, all to ensure the favor of the gods upon the state. If the state was experiencing ill fortune, then the gods must be displeased and punishing the Roman people.

If the gods were displeased, for many people the obvious reason for their displeasure were the Christians, the Manichaeans and other religious groups growing in numbers across the empire. The Christians argued that they were good citizens – they paid taxes, lived moral lives, followed the laws, and served in the military – and that this qualified them as loyal Romans despite their refusal to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods. Most of the time, the Roman authorities had tacitly if not officially accepted this argument. Sporadic persecutions occurred numerous times, but in the 3rd century they became more frequent and drastic. The emperors Decius and Valerian each issued decrees that Christians must sacrifice to the Roman gods or be executed.

This stage of persecution ended when Valerian was captured by the Persians in 260 and Christianity was again tolerated, but the crisis continued. Nevertheless, friction between pagans and Christians continued. The Christian church, with its hierarchical structure, social support networks, and ruling bishops of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch, was viewed as a threat to Imperial power, a sort of potential fifth column who did not follow the Roman gods and therefore was damaging the Roman state. To make matters worse, Christianity’s outlaw status made it an attractive religion for all those within the empire who hated Rome. Especially in Egypt and North Africa, Christianity became associated with local nationalism and anti-Roman sentiment.[2]

In short, Christianity was viewed as an internal threat to the unity and security of the empire. This view was especially strong amongst Imperial officials, whose hatred of Christians is evidenced by the numerous tortures many of them devised which went above and beyond their mandate. As is also often the case throughout history, leaders sought to pin blame on a disliked minority in order to divert attention from their own failings.

Late 3rd Century bust of Diocletian, now on display at the Museum of Archaeology in Istanbul.

Into this world stepped a 40 year old army officer named Diocles. Born in Salona, Dalmatia (modern day Solin in Croatia) to parents of low birth, he had enlisted in the army and worked his way up through the ranks. In 284, the reigning emperor Numerian was murdered by soldiers in Syria. The army then declared Diocles emperor, and he changed his name to the more Latin-sounding Diocletian. After defeating an army led by Numerian’s brother Carinus in modern day Serbia, he took control of the entire empire in 285.

Diocletian set out to radically transform the entire Roman Empire. The first and most obvious problem to be rectified was the growth of military power: between 235 and 285 there had been no fewer than 13 military coups. To put a stop to this, in 293 Diocletian split the empire into four parts, called the Tetrarchy. Two sections of the empire would be governed by Augusti, theoretically ruling as equals but with Diocletian as the practical senior partner. Two other sections would be governed by lesser rulers given the title of Caesar, who would be trained to eventually succeed the Augusti. This system kept army commanders from gaining too much power, as each was under the control of a more local ruler.

Diocletian named Maximian the Augustus of the western empire, ruling Italy, Africa and Spain with his capital at Milan. Constantius was named Caesar of Britain and Gaul with his capital at Trier. In the east, Diocletian himself took control of Egypt, Syria and Asia Minor, with his capital at Nicomedia. He named Galerius Caesar of the Balkans and Greece, with his capital at Sirmium on the Danube. All three of these men also hailed from the Balkans: Maximian came from Sirmium in modern Serbia, Galerius from Serdica in Dacia (modern Sofia, Bulgaria) and Constantius from Dardania in what is now Serbia. Rome was no longer the capital city of the empire that bore its name.[3]

Map of the Tetrarchy, as established in 293.

Aside from this decentralization of power into four parts, the rest of Diocletian’s reform involved accumulating as much power as possible to the person of the emperor. Whereas Augustus and those who followed him had adopted the title princeps, claiming to be a “first among equals” and striving to preserve the fiction of the old Republic, Diocletian adopted the title dominus, formerly a term used by slaves to refer to their masters. Now, instead of a “first among equals” from among the free citizens, the Roman people were his slaves and he was their master. Visitors to the imperial court were required to prostrate themselves before him, and if they were lucky they were allowed to kiss the hem of his robe. Previously, the power and legitimacy of the princeps was said to be derived from the Senate and the Roman people. Diocletian instead declared himself to be the gods’ representative on earth. His legitimacy was derived from the gods, not from any earthly source. He gave himself the name Jovian, as the earthly representative of Jupiter. Maximian followed suit, calling himself Herculius to compare himself to Hercules. The Senate was almost completely ignored, reduced to ruling the now unimportant city of Rome.[4]

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“Magi from the East”

It is one of the most enigmatic stories in the New Testament: the gospel of Matthew reports that sometime shortly after the birth of Jesus, “Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.’”[1] The enigmatic nature of Matthew’s account stems from its brevity. He apparently thought the Magi needed no introduction, so his readers at the time would already have known who they were. But who were they?

The origins of the Magi begin with the live of the prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathrustra). Unfortunately, we know very little about Zoroaster’s life. We don’t even know what century he was born in. Most of his writings have been lost. What we do know is that he lived in what is now central Asia or eastern Iran, and that his teachings formed the core of a new monotheistic religion now known as Zoroastrianism.

In the meantime, Magi first appear in the historical record in the seventh century BC, not in Persia but in the kingdom of the Medes. Herodotus listed the “Magoi” as one of the six tribes of the Medes. They were described as a priestly class, but their main task appears to have been the interpretation of the king’s dreams. In this respect they were like similar “wise men” kept at the courts of various Near Eastern monarchs such as the Babylonian kings.

Persians and Medes on a relief from Persepolis. The Persians were cylindrical hats and the Medes wear rounded hats.

Dream interpretation would be the Median Magi’s downfall. According to Herodotus’ semi-legendary account, the Median king Astyages had a series of dreams which the Magi interpreted as meaning that his grandson from his daughter’s marriage to a Persian would eventually rule all of Asia. He ordered his infant grandson to be murdered. However, the man assigned to kill the child did not do so but gave away the child, who was raised by a cowherd and his wife in the Median hills.

The boy was later summoned before Astyages, who recognized his facial features. Astyages again consulted his Magi, who told him that there was now nothing to fear, because “some of our prophecies come to very little significance” and suggested that because the boy had been playing “king” with other children, this was the fulfillment of the prophecy that he would be king. The Magi reminded Astyages that they had every reason to seek to keep him in power, as their own power and status depended on it.

The boy later gained the name Cyrus, and led a revolt of Persians against Astyages. After Astyages suffered a defeat, he had the Magi who advised him to let Cyrus live impaled in the capital city of Ecbatana. Nonetheless, Astyages’ army was defeated again and Astyages was captured by Cyrus in 550 BC. This ended Media’s independence and inaugurated the era of the Persian Empire. Cyrus would go on to capture Babylon in 539 and rule the largest empire the world had yet seen, stretching from Judea to Anatolia to the Hundu Kush.[2]

The next mention we find of the Magi was their institution by Cyrus as Zoroastrian priests. The government of the Persian Empire was inextricably linked to Zoroastrianism. Cyrus himself sang a hymn every day and made sacrifices as the Magi dictated. Magi accompanied Cyrus from his early campaigns onwards. They were present at the capture of Babylon and were given the authority to select first-fruits offerings from the plunder of the city.[3]

The Magi also directed Cyrus to make sacrifices to the local gods after capturing Babylon. Zoroastrians believe that Ahura Mazda (God) created all religions and chose to manifest himself to different peoples in different ways, and therefore all religions are equal, and the righteous from all religions go to heaven. This belief shaped the Persian Empire’s policies of religious toleration. Cyrus is famous for issuing the Edict of Restoration allowing Jews to return to their homeland, but everywhere the Persians conquered they allowed the locals to worship in the manner which they thought best.[4]

Two abandoned Dakhma or “towers of silence” in Yazd province, central Iran. The remains of deceased Magi were left in towers like these to be eaten by carrion birds and decay naturally before the bones were buried.

Other nations may have had their gods, but Ahura Mazda was the God of the Persian people and his priests were tasked with ensuring the rulers and the people performed proper worship. “The Persians,” according to the Greek writer Xenophon, “think that they ought to consult professional instructors in affairs relating to the gods more than in others.”[5] The austere religious customs of the Magi seemed strange to surrounding polytheistic peoples. According to Herodotus, “the Magi differ a great deal from the rest of the human race.” Their temples contained sacred fires which were kept constantly burning. Their dead were disposed of on top of a Dakhma or “Tower of Silence,” where they were left to be eaten by vultures and decay until the only the skeletons remained so as to avoid polluting the air, earth or water.[6]

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The Quest for Herakles

The Greek historian Herodotus left us one of the earliest and most popular works of ancient history. While focused on the history of the Persian Wars, he digressed far and wide, covering the cultures, history and customs of many regions. He even visited some of these regions, such as Egypt. Other regions, such as Scythia, he described based on the accounts of others but does not claim to have visited the regions himself.

Herodotus traveled to Egypt sometime in the mid 400s BC. “I conversed with the priests of Hephaistos,” he later wrote. “And I also went to Thebes and Heliopolis, since I wanted to see if they agreed with what was said in Memphis. For of all the Egyptians, the Heliopolitans are said to be the most learned in tradition.”[1]

Herodotus did not mean that the Egyptians had a temple to worship the Greek god Hephaistos. Rather, Herodotus, like many Greeks, saw all polytheistic religions as worshiping the same gods, just under different names. In a way, they were correct. The gods of all ancient polytheistic religions were anthropomorphic manifestations of various natural phenomena, emotional states and other forces which acted upon individual humans.

Obelisk of Senusret I in Heliopolis. Senusret I reigned from 1971 to 1926 B.C., so this monument had already been standing for almost 1,500 years when Herodotus visited Egypt.

Religious mythology sprung up around each of these characters, and a series of rich and complex stories took shape in various cultures. Rituals, offerings and temples developed to please the gods and gain their goodwill. These myths were not meant to be taken literally, rather, they served as a way to understand the complex, often destructive  and seemingly random world. Ancient religious thought was generally abstract and not meant to be taken literally. It’s not that the ancients believed these events did or didn’t happen, it’s just that the question of actual temporal existence was altogether unimportant. Since all cultures observed things such as water, storms, rage, the wind, knowledge, war, and so on, they tended to develop similar deities. Herodotus credited the Egyptians with being the first to develop this, saying that “They said that the Egyptians were also the first to establish the tradition of identifying names for the twelve gods, and that the Hellenes [Greeks] adopted this practice from them. They were also the first to assign altars, statues, and temples to the gods and to carve their figures in relief on stone.”[2]

When Herodotus traveled to Heliopolis, he visited one of the most important centers of Egyptian religious thought. The Heliopolitan priests had worked out a series of complex myths to explain the origin of the gods and the origin of the world. Herodotus doubtless learned of their myths, but declined to relate them in his history, explaining that “I have no desire to relate what I heard about matters concerning the gods, other than their names alone, since I believe that all people understand these things equally. But when my discussion forces me to mention these things, I shall do so.”[3]

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