Sunday, September 15, 2019

The last days of a civilization.

I want to take one more look back at our fabulous cruise -- not just because I have a lot of pictures (sooo many pictures) but also because I've been thinking this week about what happens to a civilization when its big ideas are just about played out.

As I said last week, a number of cultures are overlaid on one another in the Mediterranean, owing to successive waves of battles, invasions, and cultural assimilations. Eventually the vast majority of the area around the Mediterranean Sea -- as well as a good-sized chunk of Europe -- was part of the Roman Empire. Rome struggled to keep it all under control; in 285 CE Diocletian split it into the Eastern and Western Roman Empires.

The Romans who lived in Pompeii and Herculaneum at the time of their destruction by volcano in 79 CE were undoubtedly pagan. Herculaneum was named for Hercules -- he created it, according to myth -- and archaeologists have unearthed temples and mosaics of the Roman gods at both cities. In Herculaneum, this fresco depicts Hercules with Rome's three most important gods: Minerva, Juno, and Jupiter (he's the rainbow in the background). Above and to either side are depictions of the goddess Nike in her chariot.
Copyright Lynne Cantwell 2019
Ephesus, Turkey, was in the Eastern Roman Empire. It was partly destroyed by an earthquake in 614 CE -- but hundreds of years earlier, it was a base of operations for St. Paul. Our tour guide told us that in 56 CE or so, Paul preached in this amphitheater, which sat 25,000 people (and is used as a concert venue again today).
Copyright Lynne Cantwell 2019
She went on to tell us that the local merchants got together and had St. Paul thrown in jail -- not because they were particularly faithful to the old gods, but because they had a good business selling statues of Artemis and Paul was ruining their livelihood. (The Temple of Artemis in Ephesus was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. There's virtually nothing left of it today.)

Here's the thing that struck me: All this beauty, all these colossal monuments, were built before Christianity. The Romans, and the Greeks before them, created beautiful art and monumental buildings. They developed philosophy and poetry. Western government is based on Rome's. The ancient world didn't need Christianity to come up with any of those things. So why did this new religion of Paul's get any traction at all?

Big thinkers have ruminated on this for centuries. My take is this: By the time Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire in 317 CE, Rome's heyday was nearly over. It rolled on for another hundred years or so in the West, until 476 CE. (The Eastern part morphed into the Byzantine Empire.) Well before then, corruption had crept into Roman government, and society was stratified, with regular folks having little chance to improve their lot in life. Jesus gave them a way to fight back against a civilization that treated them like chaff.

So Christianity flourished -- and then its flaws became apparent. The Romans in particular were tolerant of other religions; Christianity was not. And thus came the Inquisition and the Dark Ages and all the rest.

Some Christians escaped the religious strife in Europe to come to America. But when they got here, they enacted their own religious intolerance. So we had Christians accusing women of witchcraft in Salem, and justifying slavery with Bible verses, and using Manifest Destiny to support their treatment of Native Americans -- who, by the way, were not savages at all.
And now, here we are, at what feels like the end of an era. To be fair, Western civilization has made great strides in the centuries since Rome fell: in the arts, sciences, and technology. But today our society is stratified into a tiny number of haves and a huge percentage of have-nots. Our government is corrupt, with a tiny percentage of old white men holding onto power any way they can. And certain influential Christians support them.

Christianity got a toehold when Roman society began to break down. You've gotta wonder what will follow Western democracy when it crumbles to dust.

Sources:; and our tour guides.

These bloggy musings have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.


Yvonne Hertzberger said...

Yes, these are the cycles history goes through. At this point in ours we can only pray that we have learned just enough to avoid total catastrophe as we morph into the era yet to come. It WILL come. The current path is unsustainable. I have to believe it will be better, but fear what we will need to endure to get there.

Lynne Cantwell said...

I agree that our current path is unsustainable. One possible scenario I see ahead is a war between Christian nations and Islamic nations. We're partway there already, with our history of picking fights in the Mideast. Maybe a return to polytheism is the answer. ;)