Even in Pessinus itself, Cybele’s hold was slipping. The great bulk of her temple, which for centuries had dominated the city, increasingly stood as a monument not to her potency, but to her fading.
Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, by Tom Holland
The time is the latter part of the fourth century. Pessinus, a city with Hellenistic roots, was located in Asia Minor and would become an archbishopric. In Roman times, Cybele would come to be known as Magna Mater ("Great Mother").
Flavius Claudius Julianus was not at all pleased with the condition of the temple; Rome, after all, by now and after Constantine, had turned decidedly Christian. Julianus, however, had repudiated Christianity despite having been raised a Christian: Julian the Apostate is how the Church remembers him.
I have written of Julian before. He believed that if the temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem (thus re-establishing the legitimacy of Judaism), this would take away one of the strongest arguments from the upstart Christians – that their faith traced its lineage all the way back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. From my earlier post:
In the winter of 362 – 363, Julian appointed his close friend, Alypius, to oversee the rebuilding of the temple.
The construction, however, was abruptly cut short later in the spring by an earthquake or some other disaster. The pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus said that balls of fire burst from underneath the foundations, and Christian historians reported that fire came down from heaven to burn the site and the workers. The project was abandoned.
In June, Julian was killed in battle. And that was that.
Returning to Holland, Julian faced another uphill battle: these Christians supported not only their own poor, but the poor of pagan Romans and Greeks as well. Collections for orphans and widows, for the imprisoned and shipwrecked. With many women converting (given their status recognized by the Apostle Paul when compared to their status under Roman law), their children would be raised Christian and soon enough their wealthy husbands would follow. Even more aid to the poor would result.
Basil and Gregory, two brothers, each would be elected bishop of different regions in Asia Minor. Coming from a wealthy family, they would devote their lives to the poor. Basil would open what might be known as the first hospital; Gregory would denounce slavery as an unpardonable offence against God.
But it was the babies who were the most vulnerable and least valued members of Roman society. Left at the side of the road or on a pile of rubbish, dropped down drains and sewers. Those rescued would be brought up as slaves, or to work in brothels. Aristotle lent the practice his prestige. Other than the Jews or the odd German tribe, few ever questioned these practices – some cities even proclaimed such practices virtuous.
Until the Christians. It was Macrina, the sister of Basil and Gregory, who would devote herself to the rescue of these abandoned infants.
Within a century or so of Julian’s anger regarding the neglect of the temple to Cybele, many of the temples devoted to the Roman gods would be neglected – converted not to churches, but left to the weeds and wild animals.
The archangel Michael would appear, first in Galatia, then near Constantinople. He would later alight on Gargano as its guardian, the site where once a bull was shot at by its master – only to have the poisoned arrow return by the wind and strike the master. Overnight, an entire church would appear in the cave that once housed the bull.
And, by now, Rome had fallen. Entire villages and towns would disappear. The demons, too, had their captain: Satan:
Christians knew that they were not mere spectators in the great drama of Satan’s claim on the world, but participants – and that the stakes were cosmically high.
If only Christians fully understood this today.
In 589, the Tibur burst its banks, flooding granaries and sweeping away many churches. Two months later, a plague, taking the life even of the pope. Rome, a city that, at its peak, boasted a million inhabitants, now had barely twenty-thousand.
Unlike the fallen Rome and the Christian west, Constantinople – the new Rome – stood guard over the east and North Africa. The Jews would be forcibly baptized, although many Christians deplored this practice. Any Jew even landing in Carthage was subject to this baptism.
The Persian empire would attack, coming even to the walls of Constantinople: Syria, Palestine, Egypt – all had fallen and Jerusalem had been stormed. Quickly, the armies of a new prophet, would lap at both the Persians and the Romans. From Mesopotamia to Central Asia, these armies would conquer. Muhammed’s armies.
Slaves would be carried away from North Africa. Fortresses, towns: all fell to permanent occupation. By the end of the seventh century, the Saracens would arrive in Carthage – its citizens slaughtered or enslaved.
The invaders would finally be stopped in the West by Charles Martel in 732. But they controlled the sea – the Mediterranean, once the key to Roman civilization – was now under Saracen control. Constantinople was now a distant city, the Byzantines a different people.
The Mediterranean was now a Saracen sea. Its waters were perilous for Christians to sail. The world was cut in half. An age was at an end.
Meanwhile, out of Ireland, came the missionary Columbanus. He clearly had to be the inspiration for Tolkien’s Radagast the Brown:
Miraculous stories were told of him: of how bears would obey his commands not to steal fruit, and squirrels sit on his shoulders; of how the simple touch of his saliva could heal even the most painful workplace accident; of how his prayers had the power to cure the sick and keep the dying alive.
Likely it was Irish monks who brought home the cult of Saint Michael. Skellig would become Skellig Michael, a monastery founded as early as the sixth century on a twin-pinnacled island about seven miles west of the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland. You would know it as the home of the vanished Luke Skywalker in the recent series of Star Wars films.
Augustine, who in his youth had classed himself as a Platonist, had still, long after his conversion to Christianity, hailed his former master as the pagan ‘who comes nearest to us.’