Thus the good was done to all men, not merely to the household of faith.
- Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, third century
The Age of Paradise: Christendom from Pentecost to the First Millennium, by John Strickland
In the aftermath of the notorious Spartacus rebellion, for instance, the road leading to Rome had been lined with no fewer than six thousand crucified slaves.
Rome was a cruel society, albeit the Romans did not believe it to be. They practiced their ethic, finding their behaviors to be quite moral. As Strickland notes, “Roman statesmen were connoisseurs of cruelty,” and this cruelty was not limited to the early Christians.
There is the story of Perpetua and Felicity, a young, aristocratic woman and her slave girl. In 203, they were rounded up and brought to the central amphitheater to be executed – a fate which could be avoided if they gave up the Christian faith. They would not.
The two walked into the arena together, hand in hand – the aristocrat with the slave. Their death was to be especially cruel – first a bear, then a leopard, finally a raging bull. None having fulfilled their purpose, finally the executioner finished the task.
Strickland notes that this event was one of many that began to shake traditional pagan morality. The spectators could not help but see the victimization of the Christians and the fact that a slave was held in regard by the noblewoman. They saw an image of a society far different than their own.
How to contrast some of the key features of the pagan religion and the Christian? Many gods vs. one God; the world a spiritual prison vs. a world created in goodness; the gods appear as men vs. man created in God’s image; a god becoming man is unconscionable vs. the Incarnation.
These differences, coupled with Christ’s moral teaching, would present to the Roman world an ethic almost diametrically contrary to their own. The improvements, which we take for granted today, were remarkable and stunning. Christianity, blamed by many today for all the ills of the West, instead was the cure.
A noblewoman would hold hands with a slave – this was unbelievable to the Roman world, a shock to the system of values that had to be internalized by many of the watchers. Blood sport was a normal part of Roman life, but while others were condemned as escaped slaves, murderers, or insurgents, Christians were condemned for being Christian. And then, once again, the picture of the two young women comes into view.
Roman pagan morality held no meaningful concept of mercy, compassion, or forgiveness – mercy, at best, given some room as long as it didn’t interfere with honor. Even more: concepts such as mercy, and especially forgiveness, were considered disgraceful in Roman society. Conquest and vengeance were held in high regard – Odysseus would slaughter his wife’s host of suiters.
The very question of mercy for the vulnerable and suffering was problematic. Compassion disrupts the proper functioning of reason; therefore, it was usually treated as a vice.
A truly virtuous Roman could look at the suffering of others without wincing.
Slavery offers another window. Plato considered it inevitable and appropriate; Aristotle went further: slavery was not only necessary, but expedient. It was part of the natural order of things. To ameliorate slavery would have been seen as unethical, as it would subvert a social order that took for granted that some would legitimately dominate over others.
The Christians, on the contrary, were commanded to love. And the Romans couldn’t help but see this played out. They would care for the poor – Christian or pagan. During times of plague, the Christians would remain in the cities to care for the suffering, and die with them.
What of women? The early Church was overwhelmingly female – which seems quite contrary to the patriarchal view of Christianity. “This is hardly surprising, because Christianity dignified women.” Paganism, on the other hand, assigned a low value to women.
Female humanity was considered naturally inferior to male. Aristotle would offer that women had no legitimate claim to equality of any kind – not political, not social, not intellectual. He regarded femininity as a deformity. For Plato, not only were women physically inferior, but morally and spiritually of less value as well.
Athens denied all rights to women; they were political non-persons. At marriage, they were basically the property of the husband. They were not educated, with the primary role to bear children for the husband – who could divorce them for any reason whatsoever. They were usually consigned to the innermost rooms of the house, living a remote and socially insignificant life.
This led, naturally, to the infanticide of newborn (primarily) girls. Greek and Roman culture was steeped in this culture. Aristotle advocated a legal requirement that no child born with a deformity should be allowed to live; Plato found infanticide a necessary part of the ideal civilization.
He argued that if a human being lacks the capacity to reason, he is not really a human being at all, but rather subhuman.
And as females were naturally inferior to males, the practice of killing newborn girls was particularly justified. The Romans adopted such views. Seneca would write about the social benefit of killing deformed and unwanted children – grouping such as these with rabid dogs.
Infants could be placed outdoors, to die from exposure; they would be strangled or drowned. A Roman sewer in Palestine was clogged with the bodies of some one hundred newborn infants. A similar number had been found near a second-century Roman villa in Britain.
Abortion was also a regular family-planning practice – and, obviously, with no ultrasound or genetic testing available, both male and female, healthy or sickly, were killed in this manner. Aristotle would encourage abortion for any parents who have too many children.
The practice of infanticide and abortion was so common and accepted, that parents could speak openly to one another about their experiences. A husband, on travel for business, would write home to his wife: “If you are delivered of a child [before I come home], if it is a boy keep it, if it is a girl discard it.”
This husband could not be described as a sinister example. He ended his letter with a strong expression of affection: “You have sent me word not to forget you. How can I forget you? I beg you not to worry.” It is certainly good that the wife’s parents did not think of her as this husband thought of his potentially-female child.
Christianity from the beginning forbade all such forms of abortion and infanticide; Christianity treated women with respect. The Didache (The Lord's Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations), a first or second century writing dealing with ethics and various practices and rituals, would be unambiguous on these points.
There is more: sexual integrity, chastity, and monogamy:
Sexually speaking, pagan Rome was a man’s world in which male promiscuity was broadly celebrated and institutionalized. …Rome’s culture of male virility encouraged not only numerous and frequent heterosexual relationships but homosexual ones as well.
Status would be gained especially by engaging in such acts with those of lower status, especially slaves. Slaves had no legal protection at all from sexual exploitation and abuse.
For the ancients, the body was disposable; the soul was eternal. Christianity would link the body to the soul, with all of the moral conclusions that this would entail; the body and soul were both hallowed. The radical changes would come, not from regulations, but from this Christian anthropology.
When we renounce the Christian faith, we abandon all right to Christian morality.
- From The Twilight of the Idols, by Friedrich Nietzsche
Christian morality did not naturally evolve from the Greek and Roman via an evolutionary process. It was not an inevitability. There were many other societies in the world 2000 years ago that did not so evolve; there are many societies today that have never achieved the position offered by Christian morality.
Sure, get rid of Christianity. Is there any possibility that freedom will ensue? Is it conceivable, to any but the most irrational, that private property for every individual will survive?
We see the evidence today in reverse. We have lived for more than 125 years in a West that has suffered through Nietzsche’s announcement of the death of God. One can draw an almost continuous downward sloping line that measures our declining liberty since that time.
Rome would suffer a population decline – too few women and too many men, driven by the infanticide primarily focused on infant girls.
With women joining the Church in greater numbers than men, Christianity would naturally increase, as more children would be born in Christian households. Even when the father was not Christian, the mother would hold influence given their manner in the family – this as the Apostle Paul and others have written and taught in the many letters of the New Testament.
…many were the men who found in their Christian wives an inspiration that pagan marriage, with its aimless sexuality and debased standards of love, utterly lacked.
Christianity grew rapidly, driven in large part by these significant cultural dynamics: Christianity offered a dignity to the disenfranchised that was completely alien to those in the Greek and Roman world.