Karl Kautsky

Foundations of Christianity

Book Two: Society In The Roman Empire

III. Thought and Sentiment in the Age of the Roman Empire


AS WE HAVE seen, the age in which Christianity arose was a time of utter decomposition of traditional forms of production and government. Correspondingly, there was a total breakdown of traditional ways of thinking. There was a general search and groping for new ways of thinking. In this task the individual felt himself all alone, for all the social support he had found hitherto in his commune or Markgenossenschaft and their traditional moral views had now disappeared. Thus one of the predominant traits of the new way of thinking is individualism. This can never signify that the individual is completely isolated from social relationships. This is impossible. The human individual can only exist in society and through society. But individualism does mean that the social context in which the individual had grown up and which had heretofore seemed the natural and obvious way of life loses its power, and the individual is now faced with the task of making a way for himself outside this old context. He can do so only by combining with others with like needs and like interests to form new social organizations. The nature of these organizations is, to be sure, determined by the existing conditions and does not depend on the caprice of individuals. But the individual is not confronted by some ready made and completed institutions, as he is in the case of traditional organizations; they have to be created by him together with others striving in the same direction. Many errors and tremendous differences of opinion can and must occur until finally out of the strife of opinions and experiments new organisms arise that best answer to the new conditions, that can endure and so furnish future generations with the same firm support as the old organizations they have supplanted. In such transitional times there is the illusion that society does not condition the individual, but rather vice versa, as though social forms, tasks and purposes depended entirely on his whim.

A similar individualism, a similar individual search and groping for new ways of thinking and new social organizations marked the age of liberalism that followed the breakup of the feudal organizations without putting new social organizations at once in their stead, until gradually the new organizations of workers and employers came more and more to constitute the decisive elements of capitalist society.

The decomposition of old and formation of new social organizations lend the first centuries of the Roman Empire a great resemblance to the nineteenth century. They have the further resemblance that in both periods the collapse of the old organizations took place earliest and most spectacularly in the big cities, and that social life was more and more determined by these cities.

Social life gave the peasant few occasions for reflection in the days of their strength and complacency, since that life was rigidly fixed for him by use and custom. He did have to reflect on nature, with which he was in constant conflict, which always had new surprises for him and with which he had to cope if he was to exist. The question of why the various natural phenomena came into being was very close to him. He looked naively for the answer at first in personification of the single forces of nature, by assuming numerous gods as active in nature; but this way of putting the question implicitly included the beginnings of natural science, which asks for the why, for the causes of all things. As soon as men began to realize that the connection between cause and effect is regular and necessary, and does not depend on the caprice of personal divinities, they had entered on the road of scientific knowledge.

Such an accomplishment could not come from peasants who were in total dependence on nature. They bowed down meekly before the forces of nature, which they did not try to master by knowledge, but to mollify by prayer and sacrifice. Scientific knowledge of nature is possible only in cities, where man is not so immediately and intensely aware of his dependence on nature, so that he can start to observe it dispassionately. It was only in cities too that there arose a ruling class that had leisure enough to observe and did not succumb to the desire to use its leisure for merely bodily pleasures, as the landowners did on their estates in the country, where physical strength and endurance play such a large part in production and leisure and surplus give rise only to coarse pleasures like feasting and riding to hounds.

Natural philosophy began in the cities, but gradually many of these cities grew so large that their inhabitants began to get out of touch with nature and lose interest in her. More and more the cities took the leading role in the spiritual and economic life of extensive regions; and this development, as we have seen, dissolved all the social support that the individual had previously found in traditional organizations and ways of thought. In addition, it intensified the class contradictions and gave rise to bitterer class conflicts, leading sometimes to the overthrow of all hitherto accepted social relationships. It was now society, rather than nature, that kept bringing new surprises to men in the great cities and setting them new tasks every day, every day raising the question: what is to be done?

It was not the reasons why things happened in nature that were uppermost in men’s minds now, but the question of what they ought to do in society: not the knowledge of necessary natural connections, but the apparently free postulation of new social purposes. Ethics replaced natural philosophy, and took the form of the quest for the supreme happiness of the individual. This had already been so in the Hellenic world after the Persian wars. The Roman world, we have seen, was but a plagiarist of the Greeks in art and science; they got their treasures by plunder, not by work, in the intellectual realm as well as the material. The Romans got to know Greek philosophy at a time when the ethical interest outweighed the interest in the knowledge of nature. Accordingly Roman thought too did not concern itself much with natural philosophy and turned its attention immediately to ethics.

In the first centuries of the Empire two tendencies in the wisdom of life dominated philosophical thought: the doctrine of Epicurus and Stoicism.

Epicurus called philosophy an activity that brings about a happy life by means of concepts and proofs. He believed this would be achieved by striving for pleasure, but only for rational lasting enjoyment, not for transitory sensual dissipations, which lead to the loss of health and wealth, and hence to pain.

This was a philosophy very well suited to a class of exploiters that found no other employment for their wealth than to consume it. What they needed was a rational regulation of the life of enjoyment. But this theory gave no consolation to those, and their number kept growing, who had already suffered bodily, spiritual or financial shipwreck; nor to the poor and wretched, nor to the satiated, those who were revolted by pleasures. And not to those who still had an interest in the traditional forms of the community and still followed goals beyond their own personality, those patriots who grieved to see the decline of state and society, without being able to prevent it. For all these groups the pleasures of this world seemed stale and vain. They turned to the Stoic doctrine, which valued not pleasure but virtue as the highest good, as the only blessedness, and held external goods, health, wealth, etc. to be matters just as indifferent as external evils.

This ended by leading many people to turn away from the world altogether, to despise life, even to long for death. Suicide became common in Imperial Rome; it actually became fashionable.

But it was remarkable that, along with the longing for death, a real terror of death grew up in Roman society.

A citizen of a commune of classical antiquity felt himself to be a member of a great entity that survived him when he died, that was immortal compared to him. He continued to exist in his community; it bore the traces of his work, and he needed no other immortality. Actually, we find in the peoples of antiquity, who did not have a long cultural development in back of them, either no ideas at all as to life after death, or else the idea of a shadowy existence, arising out of the need for explaining the appearance of the dead in dreams: a miserable life that one had rather be without. We are familiar with the complaint of Achilles’ shade: “Would that I were on earth a menial, bound to some insubstantial man who must pinch and scrape to keep alive! Life so were better than King of Kings among the dead men who have had their day and died.” (Odyssey, xi, 489-491 Lawrence’s translation).

The assumption of a shadowy life after death was, as we have said, a naive hypothesis aimed at explaining certain dream phenomena. It did not arise from a need of the soul.

It was a different matter when the community was dying and the individual was breaking away from it. He no longer had the feeling that his actions lived on in the state, to which he was in fact indifferent or even hostile; and yet he could not bear to think of complete annihilation. There arose a fear of death such as antiquity had never known before. Cowardice took root; death became a bugbear, instead of the brother of sleep that he had been.

More and more men felt the need of a doctrine that would assert the immortality of the individual, not as an unessential shadow but as a blissful being. Soon bliss was no longer sought in earthly pleasure, not even in earthly virtue, but in the attainment of a better world beyond, for which this wretched life is but a preparation. This conception found strong support in Plato’s doctrine, and that was the way in which the Stoic school too developed.

Plato had already taught of a life beyond, in which the souls, freed from their bodies lived on and received rewards and punishments for their deeds on earth. In the thirteenth chapter of the tenth book of his Republic he tells of a Pamphylian who had fallen in war. On the twelfth day after his death, as he was about to be cremated, he suddenly awoke and related how his soul, after leaving his body, had come to a wondrous place where there were fissures, part leading to heaven, part to the inner parts of the earth. There judges sat in judgment on the souls that came, showing the just the way to the right to heaven, where inconceivable beauty holds sway, and pointing out to the unjust the way down on the left into the bowels of the earth, into a subterranean abyss, where they must make good their earthly sins tenfold. The incurably wicked are seized by wild men, fiery to behold, and chained and tortured. For the others, however, in the abyss, and for those in heaven, a new life begins after a thousand years. The Pamphylian, who had seen all this, had been charged to relate it and brought to life again by a miracle.

Who can help thinking here of heaven and hell in the Christian sense, the sheep on the right hand and the goats on the left, the everlasting fire prepared in Hell (Matthew, 25, verses 38 and 41), and the dead who lived again “until the thousand years were finished” (Revelation, 20, verse 5), and so forth? And yet Plato lived in the fourth century B.C.

It sounds equally Christian when we read the following: “The body is the soul’s burden and punishment. It weighs down on the soul and keeps it in bonds.” It was not a Christian who wrote this, however, but the Stoic philosopher Seneca, teacher and minister of Nero, the persecutor of Christians.

Another passage has a similar sound: “By this carcass the soul is hidden, varnished over, contaminated, separated from what is true and its own, cast into deception; its whole battle is against the burdensome flesh. It strives thither, to the place from which it was sent forth: there eternal rest awaits it; there, after this massive and confused world it beholds the pure and clear.”

There are a surprising number of other expressions to be found in Seneca which also appear in the New Testament. Thus Seneca says, for example: “Put on the spirit of a great man.” Bruno Bauer is right in comparing this expression with that of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans: “Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ” (13, verse 14) and the Epistle to the Galatians: “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (3, verse 27). The inference has been drawn from these coincidences that Seneca borrowed from Christian sources, even that he was a Christian. This is a product of Christian fantasy. Seneca wrote before the various parts of the New Testament were composed; if there was any borrowing, it should rather be assumed that the Christians dipped into the widely circulated writings of the fashionable philosopher of the period. One is tempted to assume that both parties independently made use of expressions that were on everybody’s tongue at the time.

As to the expression “to put on Christ,” etc., Pfleiderer points out that it derives from the Persian cult of Mithras, which was very popular in Imperial Rome. He says, of the influence of this cult on Christian ideas: “The Mithraic sacraments also included the sacred meal, in which the consecrated bread and a chalice with water or wine served the believers in Mithras as the mystic symbol of the communication of the divine life; the faithful appeared at this festival in animal masks, in order to suggest that the celebrants had ‘put on’ their god, that is, had entered into an inmost community of life with him. This has its close parallel in the Pauline doctrine of the sacramental meal as a communication of the blood and body of Christ (I Corinthians, to, verse 16), whom the baptized have ‘put on’ (Galatians, 3, verse 23)” (Pfleiderer, Die Entstehung des Christentums, 1907, p.130).

Seneca is not the only philosopher of his time who formulated or used expressions that sound Christian to us.

In the particular, the ideas we are now dealing with, the immortality of the soul and the beyond, had any number of adherents in the era of the origin of Christianity. Thus for example, the Alexandrian Jew Philo, who lived at the beginning of our era, ended his first book on the allegories of the holy laws with the sentence: “True, Heraclitus has said, ‘We live their (the gods’) death, and die their life’; when we are alive, the soul is dead and buried in the body as in a funeral mound, while the soul lives its own life when we are dead, and is freed from the evil and the corpse of the life tied to the body.”

More and more, preparation for the life to come seemed far more important than the fight for the goods of this world. The kingdom of God replaced the kingdom of this world. But how was it to be found? Formerly the citizen had had three clear and reliable guides to action in tradition, the will of the people and the needs of the community. These were gone now. Tradition had become an empty shadow; the people no longer felt it had a common will; the needs of the community had become a matter of indifference. The individual stood helpless, abandoned to himself, in the stream of new ideas and new relations pouring into society, and looked around for a new firm point of support, for teachings and teachers that would teach truth and the right wisdom of life, and show him the right way to the kingdom of God. As always, when a new need arises, there were many men who sought to satisfy it. They began to preach an individual morality, a morality by means of which the individual, without any change in society, would rise out of and above this world and become a worthy citizen of a better one.

What else could rhetorical and philosophical ability resort to? All political activity had come to an end; interest in the study of the causes of things, scientific activity had broken down. What other outlet was left for the energy of orators and philosophers than to try cases for the winning of property or teach the morality of despising property, to become a preacher or a jurist? And in fact both of these fields were well cultivated in the days of the Empire, and the Romans made notable contributions in the form of declamations on the nullity of the goods of this world as well as in paragraphs on the defence of these same goods. It became the fashion to make edifying speeches and make up and compile edifying sayings and anecdotes. At bottom the gospels are nothing more than a reworking of this sort of collections of sayings and anecdotes.

Naturally this era should not be judged only by its moralizing rhetoric. The new morality, with its contempt of the world, did, it is true, answer strong spiritual needs arising out of very real social conditions. But in reality it was impossible to escape from the world; it always proved to be the stronger. Thus there arose the contradiction between moral theory and moral practice that is inevitable in this sort of morality.

Seneca, whom we have often mentioned, is a classic example. This noble Stoic moralized against participation in politics and blamed Brutus for violating the basic precepts of Stoicism by such a participation. But this same Seneca, who reproached the republican Brutus for taking part in political strife, was a party to all the crimes of Agrippina and Nero and acted as bawd for them just to remain minister. The same Seneca thundered in his writings against riches, greed and the love of pleasure. In the year 58 of our era he had to hear Suilius denounce him in the Senate for having amassed his millions through legacy-hunting and usury. According to Dio Cassius one of the causes of the rebellion of the Britons under Nero was that Seneca had forced on them a loan of ten million denarii ($1,700,000) at a high rate of interest and then called it all in at once with the utmost severity. The orator who praised poverty left a fortune of 300 million sesterces (15 million dollars), one of the greatest of the age.

Compared to this imposing example of genuine hypocrisy it has almost an air of futility when the satirist Lucian a hundred years later, in his Hermotimus, mocks an imaginary Stoic philosopher who teaches contempt of money and pleasures and promises that his doctrine will give one noble equanimity in all the vicissitudes of life, and sues his pupils in court when they fail to pay the school fee agreed upon, who gets drunk at banquets and argues so heatedly that he throws a silver cup at the head of his opponent.

Moralizing became fashionable in the Empire. But people were looking not merely for moral theories for dependent helpless spirits to lean on, once they had lost all contact with common public activity and tradition; they felt the need of a personal support. Epicurus had already said: “We must pick out a noble man to have always in our mind’s eye, so that we may live as though he were looking on, and act as though he saw our actions.” Seneca cites this passage and continues: “We need a protector and tutor. A great many sins will be avoided if there is a witness alongside the one who is making the false step. The spirit must have someone whom it honors with a reverence that touches its inmost essence. Even the thought of such helpers has power to regulate and improve. He is a watchman, model and rule, without which what is twisted can not be restored to order.”

People fell into the habit of choosing a dead great man as patron saint. They went further than that, and submitted their actions to the control of men still living, moral preachers who made pretensions that their lofty morality raised them above the rest of mankind. Stoicism had already declared that the philosopher was free from errors and weaknesses. Now, along with sanctimoniousness and hypocrisy, there developed the Pharisaical arrogance of the moral teachers – qualities that were totally alien to classical antiquity, that arose from a time of social dissolution and necessarily came to the foreground more as science was replaced by ethics in philosophy, that is the study of the world was subordinated to the making of demands on the individual.

There were now moral preachers for every class, undertaking to raise men to greater moral completeness on the pattern of their own sublime personality. For the proletariat, philosophers of the Cynic school presented themselves, disciples of the notorious Diogenes; these men preached in the streets, lived by begging and saw happiness in dirt and freedom from needs, which liberated them from any work; work they hated and despised as grevious sin. Christ and his apostles too are presented as begging street preachers. None of the gospels has anything to do with work. For all their contradictions they are in accord on that point.

The nobles however had their own house moralists, belonging to the Stoic school for the most part.

“After the fashion of the powerful since the time of the Scipios, Augustus had his own philosopher around in the person of Areus, a Stoic from Alexandria; to him he intrusted Livia to derive consolation after the death of her son Drusus. Augustus had Areus in his suite when he entered Alexandria after the battle of Actium and told his fellow-citizens, in the speech in which he pardoned the Alexandrians for their support of Marc Antony, that Areus was one of the reasons for his mildness. Spiritual guides of the same sort in other palaces and houses cared for the spiritual needs of the mighty. Formerly teachers of a new theory, they were for the Romans, after the civil wars, practical shepherds of souls, spiritual directors, consolers in misfortune, confessors. They accompanied the victims of the Emperor’s arbitrary will to their deaths, and gave them the last cheering words. Canus Julius, who received his death sentence by the Emperor Caligula with thanksgiving and died with calm and composure, was accompanied by ‘his philosopher’ on his last march. When Thrasea went into the room in which he had his veins opened, he was accompanied by his son-in-law Helvidius and by the Cynic Demetrius, as chaplain, and in the torments of the slow death kept his eyes on Demetrius” (B. Bauer, Christus und die Cäsaren, p.22f.).

Thus even before the rise of Christianity we see the father confessor appear on the stage and a new historical factor enter into the countries of Europe, theocracy, not because of the teachings of a single man, but in virtue of the new conditions. There had long been priests among the Romans and Greeks, of course, but they had small importance in the state. It was only under the Empire that there arose in the countries of Europe the conditions for a theocracy such as was known in early antiquity in many lands of the Orient. Now there took form in the West as well the preconditions for a spiritual caste, a priestly order as ruler of men, already marked by the presence in so many of its members of the sanctimoniousness and arrogance which are characteristic of the priesthood and which from that day to this have earned it the enmity of any elements of society with strength enough not to need a guardian.

Plato had declared that the state would only be well-ordered when philosophers ruled it and the rest of the citizens had nothing to do with it. Now his dream was realized, in a way which would not have been much to his taste.

But these moral preachers and father confessors were not enough for this unstable generation. The state was in uncontrollable decline. The barbarians were knocking more and more loudly at the doors of the Empire, which was often torn by the bloody rivalries of its generals. And the misery of the masses grew; depopulation increased. Roman society saw its own decline, but it was a generation too corrupt, too sick in body and mind, too cowardly, too much at odds with itself and its surroundings to make an energetic attempt to free itself from its intolerable conditions. It had lost faith in itself, and the only support that kept it from total desperation was hope in help from a higher power, from a savior.

At first this savior was seen in the Caesars. At the time of Augustus a prophecy, of the Sibylline books, circulated, which predicted a savior in the near future. [1] People saw Augustus as a prince of peace who would lead the Empire, torn by the civil wars, into a new epoch of glamour and prosperity, where there would be “peace on earth to men of good will.”

But the Caesars brought neither lasting peace nor an economic or moral uplift, despite all the confidence men had in their divine powers. And that was not a little.

People regarded them as gods; even before the doctrine of God’s becoming man arose, the doctrine of a man’s becoming a god was accepted, and yet this second procedure must obviously be much more difficult than the first.

Where all political life has been wiped out, the head of the state rises so high above the populace that he is a sort of superman, compared to them, since he unites in his own person the entire power and might of society and directs it wherever he desires. On the other hand, the deities were regarded as very human in antiquity. Thus the leap from superman to god was not too violent.

The corrupt Greeks of Asia and Egypt had already begun some centuries before our era to consider their despots as gods or sons of gods. But their philosophers too were similarly honored. A story had arisen about Plato even in his lifetime, mentioned in the funeral oration of his nephew Speusippus, to the effect that his mother Periktione had conceived him not by her husband but by Apollo. As the kingdom of Hellas became Roman provinces, they carried over the divine honors paid their kings and philosophers to the Roman governors.

Julius Caesar however was the first who dared to demand of the Romans what the hireling Greeks gave him: divine honors. He proclaimed himself to be of divine descent. No less a goddess than Venus was his ancestor, something that his nephew Augustus’ court poet Virgil later recorded in detail in a long heroic poem, the Aeneid.

When Caesar returned to Rome from the civil war as triumphant victor, it was decided in Rome “to erect several temples to him as a god, one of the temples being devoted to him in conjunction with the goddess of mercy, showing him as hand in hand with the goddess.” [2] This shrewd maneuver was aimed at evoking the mercy of the victor. After his death the “divine Tulius” was formally taken into the list of the Roman deities, by a decree of the people and Senate of Rome. And that took place, says Suetonius, “not merely externally, by decree, but also by the inner conviction of the people. For during the games which his heir Augustus devoted to his honor, the first after his apotheosis, a comet appeared, seven days in a row, at about the eleventh hour [between 5 and 6 in the evening]; this was thought to be the soul of Caesar in Heaven. That is why he is represented with a star over his head” (chap.89).

Who can help thinking here of the star that showed the wise men of the East the divinity of the Christ child!

After Augustus, it went without saying that every emperor was translated among the gods after his death. In the eastern portions of the Empire he received, as such, the Greek title of Soter, that is, savior.

But such deifications (apotheoses) were not restricted to dead Emperors, but were also distributed to their relatives and favorites. Hadrian had fallen in love with a pretty Greek youth named Antinous, who “became the favorite of the Emperor on every side,” as Hertzberg delicately says it in his Geschichte des Römischen Kaiserreichs (p.369). When his favorite drowned in the Nile, Hadrian at once had him set among the gods, in memory of his services before and after; he built a noble city near the place of the disaster and named it Antinoopolis and in it a lordly temple for his remarkable saint. The cult of Antinous soon spread over the whole Empire; in Athens there were even solemn games and sacrifices in his memory.

Even of Augustus, Suetonius reports: “Although he knew that temples were devoted even to proconsuls [governors], he would not accept this honor in any province, if the temple were not devoted in common to himself and to Roma. In Rome itself he always firmly rejected this honor” (chap.52).

Augustus was relatively modest. The third emperor of the Julian dynasty, Gaius, nicknamed Caligula (little boot), had himself honored in Rome, and in his lifetime, not only as a demi-god but as a full god, and felt himself to be one.

He said on one occasion, “Just as those who have to guard sheep and oxen are neither sheep nor oxen, but have a higher nature, so those who are set as rulers over men are not men like the others, but gods.”

Actually it is the sheep’s nature of men that produces the divinity of their rulers. This sheep’s nature was uncommonly well developed under the Empire. The divine honors paid to emperors and their favorites were taken just as earnestly as many people today take a bit of ribbon in their buttonhole seriously and expect wonderful things of it. Naturally this divine worship contained an enormous portion of servility; in this point the Empire has not yet been surpassed, and that is saying a good deal. But along with the servility, credulity played a great role.




Credulity too was a child of the new conditions.

It has always been vital to man to observe nature exactly, not to deceive himself about any of its phenomena and clearly to conceive causes and effects. That is the basis of his whole existence; and when he fails to do so, it is only too easy for him to perish.

All his action has its basis in the knowledge that definite causes evoke definite effects, that the stone with which he hits a bird kills it, that the flesh of this bird satisfies his hunger, that two sticks rubbed together produce fire, that fire warms, but consumes wood, etc.

Man judges the impersonal phenomena of nature after the pattern of his own actions. He sees in them too the effects of the acts of individuals endowed with superhuman powers, deities. Their first role is not that of miracle-workers, but as those who cause the ordinary natural course of events, the blowing of the wind, the waves of the sea, the destructive power of lightning, as well as many of men’s notions, wise or foolish. The gods are known to make blind those they would destroy. The operation of such processes remains the chief function of the gods in naive natural religion.

The charm of this religion lies in its naturalness, in its keen observation of things and men, the qualities that still make the Homeric poems today a matchless work of art.

This keen observation and inquiry into natural philosophy and into the causes of events was refined, as we have seen, as cities arose. The urban observers were now able to discover impersonal events in nature, so simple and yet so rigorously regular that they could easily be recognized as necessary, beyond the realm of the capriciousness that is bound up with the notion of personal deities. Above all it was the motions of the heavenly bodies that gave rise to the concept of regularity and necessity. Natural science begins with astronomy. Then these concepts are extended to all of nature; men begin to look for necessary, regular connections everywhere. The regularly recurring experience is the basis of this activity.

The picture changes when, for the reasons mentioned, interest in scientific study of nature wanes and is replaced by ethical interest. The human spirit is now no longer concerned with such simple motions as the paths of the stars, which he could take as his starting point; he deals exclusively with himself, with the phenomenon which is most complicated, most variable, most elusive, which most resists scientific study. And then ethics no longer has to do with knowing what is and has been, what is present in experience, and for the most part in regularly repeated experience; instead it deals with desires and duties for the future, which lies before us not yet experienced and hence seemingly in complete freedom. Here wishing and dreaming have full scope, and fantasy runs wild, rising above all the confines of experience and criticism. Lecky is right in saying in his History of the Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe (New York 1866, I, 43): “The philosophy of Plato, by greatly aggrandizing the sphere of the spiritual, did much to foster the belief (in sorcery); and we find that whenever, either before or after the Christian era, that philosophy has been in the ascendant, it has been accompanied by a tendency to magic.”

At the same time life in the large city robs the inhabitants, who are now the intellectual leaders, of contact with nature, and the need and possibility of observing and understanding nature. The notion of what is natural and what is possible becomes weaker for them; they lose their measuring-rod for the absurdity of the impossible and unnatural or supernatural.

The more helpless the individual feels, the more desperately he gropes for solid support in some personality standing out beyond the ordinary; the more desperate the conditions and the greater the need for miracles, the more he will be inclined to lay miracles to the account of that personality, whom he regards as his rescuer and savior: in fact he will demand miracles as the touchstone which proves that the savior is genuine.

In this connection points of contact with divine myths of old times will easily be found, and themes from them will eagerly be taken up into the new myths. But the new ones have an entirely different character. Superhuman powers were attributed to the old gods in order to explain very exactly and correctly observed real events. Now superhuman powers were attributed to men, in order to have them perform deeds that no one had ever observed, that were quite impossible. It was possible now and then for an over-powerful imagination to evolve such miraculous events out of the old legends of the gods, even in primitive times; but such was not the origin of those legends. But for new myths miracles are the starting point and origin.

One of the points in which the old and the new legend met most frequently was the begetting of their hero by a god. In primitive times men loved to magnify the glory of their ancestors to the maximum by making the man from whom their clan stemmed appear as tremendous, as a superman, a demigod. Naturally, in a mode of thinking that saw a god behind every event, the hero could receive the requisite power only from a god. And since these gods, for all their divinity, were thought of in very human terms and with very human feelings, it was easy to assume that the mother of the progenitor inspired a tender feeling in some god and the stout hero was the fruit thereof.

In the same way the new legend had the saviors of the world come from mortal mothers but divine fathers. So Suetonius says, for example:

“I read in the book of Asclepiades of Mendes on the deities, that Atia, the mother of Augustus, once attended a solemn sacrifice to Apollo at midnight and fell asleep in her sedan chair while waiting for the other women to arrive. Then suddenly a snake glided in to her and left her soon; when she woke she had the feeling as if her husband had slept with her and so purified herself. At once a spot showed on her body in the shape of a snake, and could not be got off, so that from then on she never went to the public baths. In the tenth month Augustus was brought into the world, and was taken as a son of Apollo” (Octavius, chap. 94).

A love affair with a god seems to have been considered something both possible and attractive among Roman ladies at that time. Josephus tells an edifying story in that connection. There lived in Rome at the time of Tiberius a lady named Paulina, whose beauty was as great as her chastity. A rich knight, Decius Mundus, fell hopelessly in love with her, offering her 200,000 drachmas for a single night, but was refused. A freedwoman found a way, however. She had learned that the fair Paulina was a diligent worshipper of the goddess Isis, and founded her plan on that. With 40,000 drachmas she bribed the priests of the goddess to inform Paulina that the god Anubis longed for her. “The woman was glad and boasted to her friends of the great honor Anubis was paying her. She also told her husband that she had been invited by Anubis to eat and to sleep with him. The husband willingly consented, knowing his wife’s chastity. She came to the temple, and after she had dined and it was time to go to sleep, the priests put out all the lights and closed the door. Mundus, who had previously hidden in the temple, now came to her not at all unwillingly. She was his all night, for she thought he was the god. After he had had his pleasure, he left early in the morning, before the priests came into the temple, and Paulina went back to her husband and related how the god Anubis had been with her, and boasted of it to her acquaintances.” But the noble knight Mundus went so far in shamelessness as to mock the lady a few days later in the street for having given herself to him for nothing. Great indignation on the part of the crestfallen worshipper of the god; she ran post-haste to Tiberius and had the priests of Isis crucified, their temple destroyed and Mundus exiled. [3]

What gives this little anecdote a specially piquant flavor is the fact that it comes immediately after the passage we have spoken of, in which the praise of the miracle-worker Christ is sung in inspired tones. Pious commentators early occupied themselves with this sequence, linking the adventure of Madame Paulina with Christ, and seeing in it a hidden sneer on the part of the malicious Jew Josephus at the virginity of the Virgin Mary and the credulity of her fiance Joseph, a sneer that to be sure would not go very well with the recognition of the miracles of Christ immediately preceding it. However, since Josephus actually had no suspicion of Christ’s miracles, and the passage dealing with them is a later Christian interpolation, as we have seen, the sneer at the Virgin and her devoted bridegroom is a very unintentional one. It only proves the dulness of the Christian forger, who chose just this passage as the best place to introduce testimony as to the son of God.

Being a son of God’s was a part of the stock in trade of a savior at that time, whether he was a Caesar or a street preacher. And so was miracle-working, the miracles being made up on the same pattern in either case.

Even the sober Tacitus reports of Vespasian (Histories, IV, chap. 81) that he worked many miracles in Alexandria, proving the approbation of Heaven for the emperor: he put spittle on the eyes of a blind man and made him see, and stepped on the hand of a man lame in that member and healed him.

Later the power to perform such miracles passed from the heathen emperors to the Christian monarchs. The kings of France had the remarkable gift of healing scrofula and goiter by touch at their coronation. As late as 1825, at the crowning of Charles X, the last Bourbon on the French throne, this miracle was produced according to schedule.

Similar cures were of course often told of Jesus. The pious Merivale assumed that Vespasian’s miracles were patterned after the Christian ones – which is not very likely if we consider how insignificant and unknown Christianity was in Vespasian’s time. Bruno Bauer, on the other hand, explains in his Christus und die Cäsaren: “I will present the theologians of today with the theorem that the late author of the fourth gospel and after him the revisers of the original gospel contained in Mark all borrowed from Tacitus the application of spittle in Christ’s miraculous cures” (John 9, 6; Mark 7, 33 and 8, 23).

In our opinion this borrowing need not necessarily be accepted. Every age that believes in miracles has ideas of its own as to how they occur. Just as at the time of the dying middle ages it was generally assumed that a pact with the devil must be signed with warm blood, so that two authors can bring the same detail into their tales in the same manner without one having borrowed from the other, likewise it is possible that at Vespasian’s time and later spittle was considered a common means of miraculous cures, so that it was equally natural for the sober reporter of the mundane savior on the throne of the Caesars as for the enthusiastic reporter of the savior on the throne of the millennial kingdom to attribute such a cure to the person they were glorifying, without one author having made use of the other. Moreover, Tacitus certainly did not invent this detail but found the legend already in fashion.

But it was not only the Caesars who worked miracles at that time, but a great number of their contemporaries. Stories of miracles were something so common that finally they no longer attracted any particular attention. The evangelists do not show the miracles and signs of Jesus as having the profound effect they should have according to our way of thinking. The miraculous feeding of the five thousand for example leaves even the disciples still of little faith. Moreover, besides Jesus, his apostles and disciples too worked many miracles. Indeed, men were so credulous that for example the Christians never thought of doubting the miracles worked by people they held to be rogues. They got out of it very simply, by ascribing such miracles to the power of devils and evil spirits.

Miracles were as cheap as blackberries; every founder of a religious sect or philosophical school performed them to show his ability. Thus we have the example of Apollonius of Tyana, a contemporary of Nero’s.

Naturally his birth too is miraculous. When his mother was pregnant, the god Proteus appeared to her, the wise god no one can understand; she asked him unafraid what she would give birth to. He answered, “Me.” [4] The young Apollonius grows up, a miracle of wisdom, and preaches a pure, moral life, distributes his property among his friends and poor relations and goes into the world as a begging philosopher. But even more imposing than his abstemiousness and morality are his miracles. These often seem strikingly similar to the Christian ones. Thus, it is told of him during his stay in Rome:

“A maiden had died on the day of her marriage; at least she was thought to be dead. The bridegroom followed her bier lamenting and Rome mourned with him, for the maiden belonged to a very noble house. Now as Apollonius met the funeral procession he said: ‘Put down the bier, I will dry your tears for the maiden.’ Then he asked her name, and the crowd thought he would give one of the usual funeral orations. However, he touched the dead girl, spoke some unintelligible words and waked her from her seeming death. She raised her voice and returned to her father’s house.” [5]

According to the legend, Apollonius boldly braves the tyrants, Nero and Domitian, is thrown into prison, casts off his fetters without any effort, but does not escape, waiting instead in prison for the trial; he delivers a long speech in his defence, but before sentence is pronounced disappears mysteriously from the courtroom in Rome and comes some hours later to Dikaearchia near Naples, whither the gods had transported him with the speed of an express train.

Apollonius has a highly developed gift of prophecy, a gift which at that time was essential in the trade of savior, along with clairvoyance. When Domitian was murdered in his palace in Rome, Apollonius in Ephesus saw the event as clearly as if he had been present, and at once imparted it to the Ephesians, a system of wireless telegraphy that puts Marconi to shame.

His end came in this way: he disappeared in a temple whose doors flew open for him and flew shut behind him. “From within was heard the song of maidens sounding as though they were inviting him to ascend into heaven: Come from earthly darkness, come into heaven’s light, come.” [6]

His body however was never found. Therefore this savior too obviously ascended into Heaven.

Between the supporters of the belief in Christ and those of Apollonius a lively competition in miracles soon arose. Under Diocletian one of his governors, Hierocles, wrote a book against the Christians, in which he maintained that Christ’s miracles were nothing in comparison with those of Apollonius and badly attested into the bargain. Eusebius of Caesarea answered in a refutation which did not express the slightest doubt as to the reality of Apollonius’ miracles, but sought to minimize them as being not God’s work but witchcraft, the work of dark demons.

Thus even when miracles had to be criticized the idea of doubting them did not arise.

This credulity increased as society deteriorated; the scientific spirit faded and was replaced by moral preaching. With credulity the thirst for miracles grew as well. A sensation ceases to operate when it is too often repeated. Stronger and stronger means must be used to make an impression. This we saw in the first chapter, where we examined the gospel treatment of wakings from the dead; they are simpler in the older gospels than in the later ones.

The most recent gospel, John, adds to the old miracles reported in the earlier gospels, the turning of water into wine at the marriage in Cana; an invalid that Jesus heals must have been sick for 88 years in John; a blind man whom be causes to see must have been born blind; in general, the miracles are carried to an extreme.

Exodus, 17, verses 1 to 6, tells us that Moses struck water from a rock in the desert to give the thirsting Israelites to drink. That was not miraculous enough in the time of the Christians. The first letter of the apostle Paul to the Corinthians, to, verse 4, informs us that the rock from which the Jews got water followed them through the desert so, that they should never lack water – a mobile spring.

Especially crude are the miracles that appear in the so-called Acts of the Apostle Peter. In a miracle competition with Simon the magician the Apostle brings a salt herring to life.

In addition, the men of that era considered quite natural occurrences as miracles, as signs of God’s arbitrary interference in the course of events: not merely healings and deaths, victories and defeats, but the most common pastimes, like bets. “In Gaza at a horse race between the horses of a zealous Christian and a zealous pagan, ‘Christ beat Mamas’ and many pagans had themselves baptized.” [7]

The natural event regarded as a miracle was not always so unequivocal. “In Marcus Aurelius’ war against the Quadi in 173-74 the Roman army once found itself surrounded by a superior force of the enemy in the burning heat of the sun, parched with thirst and threatened with imminent annihilation. Suddenly thick clouds came together and poured down in a heavy rainfall, while on the enemy’s side a fearful storm caused confusion and ruin; the Romans were saved, victory went to their side. The effect of this event was overpowering. It was preserved in pictorial representations, as the custom was then, and counted generally as a miracle which was remembered down to the end of antiquity and to which hundreds of years later Christians and pagans alike referred as a proof of the truth of their faith.... Apparently the miraculous deliverance was ascribed by most people to the emperor’s prayer to Jupiter; others however asserted that it was thanks to the craft of an Egyptian magician in his suite, who brought about the downpour by conjuring the gods, notably Hermes. But according to the story of a Christian contemporary the miracle was brought about by the prayers of Christian soldiers in the twelfth (Melitenian) legion. Tertullian tells this as something well known, and refers to a letter of Marcus Aurelius.” [8]

This letter must have been a forgery. It was a time as rich in forgeries as in miracles. Credulity and the need for miracles directly produced the forgeries.

The need for miracles and the credulity took on ever larger dimensions, until finally in the fourth and fifth centuries, the ages of the greatest decay, the monks worked wonders compared to which Jesus’ miracles as related by the gospels seem insignificant.

“... a believing age was easily persuaded that the slightest caprice of an Egyptian or a Syrian monk had been sufficient to interrupt the eternal laws of the universe. The favourites of Heaven were accustomed to cure inveterate diseases with a touch, a word, or a distant message; and to expel the most obstinate demons from the souls or bodies they possessed. They familiarly accosted, or imperiously commanded, the lions and serpents of the desert; infused vegetation into a sapless trunk; suspended iron on the surface of the water; passed the Nile on the back of a crocodile; and refreshed themselves in a fiery furnace.” (Gibbon, op. cit., ch.37).

An excellent description of the state of mind of the time in which Christianity arose is furnished by the character sketch Schlosser gives in his Weltgeschichte of Plotinus, the most famous neo-Platonist philosopher (3rd century A.D.).

“Plotinus, who was born in 205 in Lykopolis in Egypt and died in 270 in Campania, was for eleven years an ardent disciple of Ammonius, going so deep in his delving into the nature of god and man that, unsatisfied by the Egyptian-Greek secret doctrine of his predecessor and teacher, he craved for Persian and Indian wisdom too and attached himself to the army of the younger Gordianus in order to go with him to Persia ... Later Plotinus went to Rome, where he found the prevailing tendency toward Oriental mysticism much to his purpose, and played the role of a prophet for twenty-five years, until shortly before his death. The Emperor Gallienus and the Empress honored him with such fanatical zeal that they are even said to have had the intention of founding a philosophical state on Plotinus’ lines in some city of Italy. Equally great was the applause that Plotinus found in the most noble families of Roman citizens; some of the first men of the state were enthusiastic supporters of his and received his teachings as a message from heaven.

“The spiritual and moral exhaustion of the Roman world and the generally prevalent tendency to fanaticism, to monastic morality and to the supernatural and prophetic were nowhere so clearly in evidence as in the impression made by Plotinus and in the respect his doctrine received precisely because it was incomprehensible.

“The methods Plotinus and his disciples used to spread the new wisdom were the same as those which at the close of the eighteenth century in France won corrupt notables to the mystical nonsense of Mesmer and Cagliostro, and in Germany won a pious Prussian king for Rosicrucians, exorcists and such people. Plotinus practiced magic, called up spirits and even descended to the business, now practiced only by the riff-raff of society, of solving petty thefts at his friends’ request.

“Plotinus’ writings too were prophetically composed; for according to his best-known disciple he wrote down his alleged inspirations without deigning to look at them afterwards or even correct slips of the pen. That is not how the masterworks of the ancient Greeks were composed! The ordinary rules of thought, or what we call method, were not to be found in the writings or the lectures of a man who required everyone who wished to arrive at philosophical knowledge to renounce himself or to abandon the natural state of thinking and feeling, as the first condition.

“To get an idea of the character of his theory and its effects, we need only a few remarks on the contents of his writings. He always represents life with and among men as sinful and perverse; for him true wisdom and holiness consist only in total divorce from the sensible world, in brooding and a sombre hermetic absorption in oneself and the contemplation of higher things.... This theory of life, which undermines all activity and scorns all experience and any human relationships, and moreover is preached with the greatest contempt for any one who thinks otherwise, is complemented by a purely theoretical conception of nature and its laws, based on fantastic notions. Aristotle had based his ideas of nature on experience, observation and mathematics; but there is no trace of such things in Plotinus. He considered himself a divinely enlightened philosopher, who knew everything from internal inspiration and needed no scaffolding to arrive at knowledge; his wings bore him above the earth and through all the spaces of heaven ...

“Plotinus had three disciples who brought into passable style what he had pronounced as oracles, and then, as his apostles, spread his doctrine. These were Herennius, Amelius and Porphyrius. All three had decided talent, and of the last two Longinus says, although in general he would have none of a wisdom hostile to life and sound reason, they were the only philosophers of his time whose writings were readable.

“How feeble their love of truth was, however, is best seen from the life of Plotinus composed by Porphyry. Porphyry tells the silliest stories about his lord and master, and since he had far too much sense to believe them, he must purposely and consciously have invented them to make Plotinus’ oracular sayings more impressive.” [9]




Untruthfulness is the natural complement of credulity and hunger for miracles. Thus far we have only adduced examples in which informants told miraculous things about the dead. But people were not lacking who reported the greatest marvels about themselves, like Apion of Alexandria, the Jew-hater, “the worldbell, as the emperor Tiberius called him, full of big words and bigger lies, of loudest omniscience and unconditional self-confidence, knowing men, or if not men at least their worthlessness, a veteran master of oratory and betrayal, quick-witted, clever, shameless and implicitly loyal.” [10]

Loyal – that is, servile – is usually applicable to this kind. The loyal rascal was bold enough to conjure Homer up out of the underworld to ask him his ancestry. He asserted that the poet’s spirit had appeared to him and answered his question, but bound him not to reveal it to anyone!

A still cruder fraud was practiced by Alexander of Abonoteichos (born about 105, died about 175 A.D.). He used the grossest methods for his hocus-pocus, like trained animals and hollow statues of the gods in which men were concealed. Alexander founded an oracle that gave its predictions for something like twenty-five cents in our money. Zucian values the profit of this enterprise at about $15,000 per annum.

Alexander gained influence over the “philosophical” emperor Marcus Aurelius through the consular Rutilianus. The swindler died at seventy, rich and honored. A statue that was erected in his honor was supposed to give predictions even after his death. The following was another well-staged fraud:

“Dio Cassius relates that in the year 220 A.D. a spirit, on its own confession the spirit of Alexander the Great, with his well-known form, features and clothing, went with a train of four hundred men dressed as Bacchantes from the Danube to the Bosphorus, where he disappeared: no magistrate dared detain him; rather, he received food and lodging everywhere at the public expense.” [11]

In the face of performances like that our table-lifting heroes of the fourth dimension, and the more material captain of Köpenick. are not in it. However, these practices were not merely conscious fraud and deception on the part of sharpers and prestidigitators; they emanated from serious thinkers and honest men.

Ancient historical writing was never distinguished for overrigorous critical faculty. It was still not a science in the narrow sense of the word, and still served pedagogical or political purposes rather than the study of the laws of social development. It aimed at edifying the reader or proving the correctness of the political tendencies professed by the writer. The great deeds of ancestors were to elevate future generations and inspire them to similar deeds; in this sense the historical work was but the echo in prose of the heroic epic. But future generations should also learn from their forefathers’ experience what should be done and what should not. Naturally, since many a historian, especially when the purpose of edification and inspiration got the upper hand, was not too strict in the choice and criticism of his sources, it is understandable that he would also take the liberty of filling in gaps by means of his imagination, in the interests of the artistic effect. In particular every historian considered it his prerogative to make up the speeches he set in the mouths of his characters. Nevertheless, the classical historian strictly avoided any consciously or intentionally false treatment of the actions of the personages they dealt with. They were under the greater necessity of avoiding any such procedures in that they were dealing with public political actions, in which their reports could be checked.

But as ancient society decayed, the function of historical writing changed. Men no longer desired political instruction, for politics became more and more a matter of indifference, and even repugnance, to them. They no longer demanded examples of manly courage and devotion to the fatherland; what they wanted was diversion, new titillations for their jaded nerves, tittle-tattle and sensations, marvels. A little precision more or less made no difference here. In addition, test and verification became much more difficult, since private occurrences now held the center of the stage, occurrences that did not take place in public. History writing turned more and more into scandalous chronicle on the one hand, or tall tales on the other.

This new trend in history-writing appears in Greek literature from the time of Alexander the Great; Alexander’s courtier Onesicritus wrote a book about his deeds that teems with lies and exaggerations. From lying to forgery is but a step. The step was made by Euhemerus who brought back inscriptions from India in the third century that were supposed to be age-old, but which he had fabricated himself.

But this convenient method was not confined to history-writing alone. We have seen how in philosophy interest in this world faded away and interest in the other world increased in strength. But how was a philosopher to persuade his students that his ideas of the other world were anything more than mere fantasies? The simplest way was obviously to find or invent a witness who came with a report from the bourne whence no traveler returns. Even a Plato did not disdain a trick like that, as we saw with his famous Pamphylian.

Furthermore, as interest in natural science shrank and was replaced by ethics, the critical spirit that tries to test the truth of every statement by factual experience disappeared; as the individual became more insecure, he felt a greater- need to find support in some great man. It was not factual proofs but authorities that were decisive for men now; and anyone who wanted to make an impression had to try to get the necessary authorities on his side. If they were lacking, then the facts had to be improved upon and the authorities fabricated. We have seen such authorities in the cases of Daniel and Pythagoras. Jesus belonged to the same category, as did his apostles, Moses, the Sibyls, and so forth.

People did not always take the trouble to write a whole book under a false name. Frequently it was enough to insert a suitable sentence into a genuine work of a recognized authority, and in this way win this authority for oneself. This was all the easier because printing had not yet been invented. Books circulated only in copies made either by the writers themselves or by a slave, if they were rich enough to have competent slaves. There were business men who kept slaves busy copying books, which were then sold at a high profit. How easy it was to falsify such a copy, to leave out a sentence one had no use for or add a sentence one needed, especially when the author was already dead, so that there would be no protest in that negligent and credulous age. Further copyists then took care of preserving the forgery for the future.

For the Christians this was very simple. Whoever the first teachers and organizers of Christian communities may have been, they certainly came from the lowest classes of society, were illiterate and left no written notes. In the beginning, their teachings were handed down only by word of mouth. Anyone of their supporters who appealed in a dispute to the first teachers of the community could hardly be convicted of falsehood unless he flew too crassly in the face of tradition. Soon divergent versions of the words of “the Lord” and his apostles must have taken form. And in view of the heated conflicts that took place within the Christian communities from the outset, these different versions must have been from the first put forward not so much for the sake of objective history but in order to win a polemical victory, and then later written down and assembled in the gospels. It was primarily polemical ends too that inspired the later copyists and revisers to strike out an inconvenient sentence here and add one there, in order to adduce it all as proof that Christ or his apostles supported this or that opinion. We meet with this polemical tendency at every step in testing the gospels.

Soon however the Christians were not satisfied with thus improving their own sacred scriptures for their purposes by falsifications and forgeries. It was too convenient a method not to tempt imitation in the case of other, “heathen” authors, as soon as there were elements among the Christians educated enough to attach some value to the testimony of eminent authors outside of Christian literature, and numerous enough to make it worth the trouble to have their own falsified copies made for these educated Christians, which they would gladly receive and circulate. Many of these forgeries have been preserved down to the present time.

We have already mentioned Josephus’ testimony as to Jesus as one such forgery. The next writer after Tacitus who mentions the Christians is the younger Pliny, who, as propraetor of Bithynia (probably 111 to 113), sent a letter about them to Trajan, which has come down to us in the collection of his letters (C. Plinii Caecilii Epistolarum libri decem, Book X, letter 97). In it he inquires what to do with the Christians of his province, of whom he hears nothing but good, but who are emptying the temples. This idea of the harmlessness of the Christians does not go well with the view of his friend Tacitus, who stresses their “hate for the whole human race.” It is equally striking that by Trajan’s time Christianity should already have been so widespread that it was able to empty the temples of Bithynia, “which were already all but deserted, their ceremonies long neglected, their sacrificial animals seldom finding a purchaser.” One should expect that facts like these would invite general attention (as if shall we say only Social Democratic votes were cast in Berlin). People in general would be excited. Pliny however first learns of the existence of the Christians through a denouncement. These and other considerations suggest that this letter is a Christian forgery. Already in 1788 Semler assumed that the whole letter of Pliny was invented by a later Christian to glorify Christianity. On the other hand Bruno Bauer thinks the letter is Pliny’s, but originally did not sound very complimentary to the Christians and was suitably “edited” later by a Christian copyist.

The forgeries became still bolder when the Germanic barbarians overflowed into the Roman Empire during the great migrations. The new masters of the world were simple peasants, with their peasant shrewdness to be sure, sober and cunning enough in all the things they understood. For all their simplicity they proved to be less hungry for miracles, less credulous, than the heirs of ancient culture. Reading and writing, however, were unknown arts to them. These became the privilege of the Christian clergy, which alone now represented the educated class, and now no longer needed to fear any criticism of their forgeries in the interest of the church. They went at it with a will. The fabrications were no longer confined to the domain of doctrine, as they had thus far; they did not only aim at winning theoretical, tactical or organizational conflicts, but were a source of gain or legal justifications of appropriations that had been carried out. The most monstrous of these falsifications were the Donation of Constantine and Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals. Both were fabricated in the eighth century. In the first document Constantine (306-337) leaves to the popes absolute and eternal rule over Rome, Italy, and all the provinces of the West. The Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals are a collection of church laws, allegedly by the Spanish bishop Isidore in the beginning of the seventh century, reinforcing the autocratic rule of the popes in the church.

These countless forgeries are one of the principal factors in making the history of the origin of Christianity so obscure to this day. Many of these documents are readily detected as spurious; many were exposed centuries ago, as for instance Laurentius Valla proved the Donation of Constantine to be false as early as 1440. But it is not so easy to find out whether there is a kernel of truth hidden in the fabrication and to dig it out.

This is not an attractive picture that we have to paint here. Decadence in every nook and corner, economic, political and hence also scientific and moral decay. The old Romans and Greeks regarded virtue as being the full, harmonious development of manliness in the best sense of the words. Virtus and arete denote courage and steadfastness, but also manly pride, willingness to make sacrifices, and selfless devotion to the community. But the lower society sank in slavery, the more slavishness became the highest virtue, out of which and by means of which grew all those estimable qualities we have seen emerging: withdrawal from the community into oneself, cowardice and lack of self-confidence, longing for salvation by an emperor or a god, not by one’s own strength or the strength of one’s class; self-abasement toward those above, priestly arrogance toward those below; lassitude and tedium, and at the same time a passion for sensations and marvels; exaggeration and ecstasy along with flattery, lying and forgery. That is the picture the Imperial age presents us with and the picture whose features are reflected in Christianity, the product of that time.




1. Merivale, The Romans under the Empire, 1860, VII, 349.

2. Appian, Roman Civil Wars, II. 16.

3. Jewish Antiquities, XVIII, 3.

4. Apollonius von Tyana translated by Baltzer. 1889, I, 4.

5. Ibid., IV, 45.

6. Ibid., p.378.

7. Friedlinder. Sittengeschichte Roms, 1901, II, p.534.

8. Ibid., II, p.475.

9. Weltgeschichte, 1846, IV, p.452 f.

10. Mommsen, Römische Geschichte, V, 517 f.

11. Friedländer, op. cit., II. 626.


Last updated on 24.12.2003