The consensus among many historians has been that the transition from paganism to Christianity in the Mediterranean world was effortlessly accomplished by the end of the fourth century. In Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, Ramsay MacMullen sets out to disprove the consensus, which he maintains is an understandable misinterpretation considering the 'corrupt foundation' of historical records it rested upon. He makes his case by covering a wide range of material to show that Christianity did not destroy paganism as much as merge with it. Through his brilliant and original display of primary and secondary source material it becomes evident that paganism remained alive and deep-rooted long after Constantine. Many factors appear to have caused this, most prominently the vast extent of the empire and consequent diversity of tribal and local customs, which met people's daily needs.
Christianity replaced paganism only when the people believed it could do more for them what paganism had done (1). This was especially true of protection and of healing, primarily physical but also psychological. People flocked to the shrines of Asclepius and others; Could the Christian god, or more likely, the Christian saints, fill those shoes? Most scholars of religious history probably accept, if they are honest to themselves, that religious history is a notoriously slippery business. Therefore, it is to the benefit of all historians to be aware of the great variety of interpretations that are available. History is an ongoing discourse, in which many different interpretations can and should be written on the same history, each striking at least one chord that supporters of an opposing or different view can find significant.
The validity of an interpretation of a particular history is fundamentally dependent on the existence of a sufficient amount of quality narratives or records of historical events to provide a skeletal structure to assist in pinpointing relationships between people, time and space (2). MacMullen maintains that the historical records of late antiquity are not only insufficient, but also distorted. The Late Antique historical record seems to falsely suggest that paganism was not only defeated by the end of the fourth century, but had in fact successfully converted all of the pagans. In addition to the fact that the majority of historical records involving a conflict tend to focus on the winner, he asserts that the reason the historical records of Late Antiquity are unintelligible is because ecclesiastical and secular authorities destroyed or distorted them.
The Late Antiquity serves as a 'permeable membrane' through which historical records must pass. This explains the disproportionate amount of Christian literary material. The biases of both Christian and pagan historians had a tremendous impact on their version historical events. This point is clearly illustrated by their distinctly different accounts of the fifth-century crisis of the Roman system. Pagan historians of the period laid the blame for recent disasters squarely on the shoulders of the Christian successors of Constantine. Their incompetence and folly were exposed, the chief folly being the abandonment of rites and gods that had long protected the Roman people.
Olympiodorus reported one pagan explanation for the entry of the Goths into the empire (3). Sometime in the fourth century, the governor of Thrace had found, buried, three solid silver statues of bound barbarians. Although locals said they were sacred treasures, consecrated according to an ancient rite, the governor, with imperial approval, had the statues removed. 'As soon as the statues were removed, a few days later the whole Gothic nation poured over Thrace and shortly afterwards the Huns and the Sarmatians were to invade Illyricum and Thrace also (3). ' More important to the pagan case than this legendary occurrence was the undoubted Gothic sack of Rome in 410. Under its old gods, Rome had gone for eight centuries un taken by foreign enemies.
It was only under the new religion that Rome had become vulnerable. The Christian analysis of Roman defeats was discussed by Augustine in his book The City of God (3). His version was more subtle, and probably more honest. Augustine contended that for the true Christian earthly happiness was beside the point.
This world was a place of pilgrimage, where on struggled against sin and for heavenly reward. Earthly empires had their place in God's scheme, but their rise and fall was not something that Christians should get overly excited about (1). Despite the importance of such views, both at the time and in the long run, they are hardly the whole story. Looking at the pagan view of the sack of Rome, we can see how such strong opinions can distort a historical account. This is especially true of Christianity when we examine their historical record in its entirety. Christianity's control of the flow of religious history enabled it to successfully exaggerate its own his history, while successfully suppressing the bulk of pagan literature.
One of the major reasons for Christianity's success was its ability to extensively document the miraculous demonstrations of its claims as well as the lives of saints and martyrs. It seems only fitting that a religion proven through miraculous displays would receive a champion through a miraculous event. Constantine felt he needed the help of divine intervention to defeat emperor Maxentius. The recent failures of pagan emperors contrasted with the long success of his father, who had worshipped the 'one Supreme God,' convinced Constantine pray for a revelation from the Christian God (4). According to Eusebius, a contemporary Christian historian, this was the result: And while he was thus praying with fervent entreaty, a most marvelous sign appeared to him from heaven...
He said that about noon, when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, Conquer by this (4). He adopted the cross as his banner, and went on to defeat Maxentius. Thereafter he was convinced that the God of the Christians was the only true one, and that God had chosen him for a special role on earth. We must remember that his emergence as a Christian champion, just when a champion was needed, appeared to be a miracle. The great persecutions of Diocletian had been a traumatic ordeal. The defeat and death of the persecutors by a Christian emperor could be nothing less that a sign from God.
It is easy to understand how such a miraculous display of divine intervention would seem attractive to pagans and invoke such a strong sense of loyalty to the empire. There was a renewed sense of security among the populace. After all, if God was on their side, who could be against them? The role of the local church became increasingly important within the civic community. It became manifest everywhere, though most dramatically where imperial institutions had failed.
In the fifth century, towns were often threatened by foreign warlords or the equally savage armies of the imperial government. In an emergency, the pleas of the bishop or a respected monk, or the protection of a patron saint might be enough to avert a conflict. In Spain, Bishop Hydatids recorded that Vandal and Suevi c leaders had harmed the cities and churches of Seville and Meacuterida in 427 AD (5). Soon after the attacks Gund eric the Vandal was possessed by a demon and perished, and Heremigarius the Steve was 'cast down in the River Ana by the arm of God and died (5). ' When one reflects on such incident, it is easy to understand how the city churches of the Roman Empire sent down deep roots in the fifth century.
Of all the institutions associated with Rome, they performed the best, and so attracted loyalty of all ranks. The protection of citizenry, which pagan gods had once been responsible for, was now the concern of the church. Christianity also created within itself forms of worship and organization that characterized it throughout the Middle Ages. The two most important developments were the cult of the saints and their relics, and the monastic lifestyle. Contrary to MacMullen, neither of them was quite an innovation, but during the century they became central parts of the life of the church. Robin Fox contends, ' that most pagans denounced the cult of as gruesome superstition, and monasticism as life-hating fanaticism, a rejection of the best aspects of civilization (1).
' It is true at first pagans found these practices abhorrent, but it didn't take long for many pagans to find them appealing. For many pagan converts, the cult of relics filled the void left by pagan patrons when they renounced paganism. For many, simply knowing a friend of God was thought to provide immediate and tangible benefits. Heaven had given Antony of Egypt the power to heal the sick.
Athanasius's biography of Antony records, for instance, how the parents of an unnamed girl from Bus iris came to the famous monk for help. The daughter had 'a dreadfully offensive disease. ' Antony refused to promise anything, since healing came from the Savior, but said, 'Go, if she is not dead, you will find her cured (6). ' Of course she was cured.
This miraculous healing is one of many that have been recorded. Antony was part of a generation of holy people who popularized asceticism as the epitome of the Christian life, as the best way to become a 'friend of God. ' At the same time, martyrs and their relics began to take a far more prominent place in Christian thinking and worship. For martyrs, too, were friends of God, closer friends than monks were, but friends for much the same reason. Monks gave up normal life, its pleasures and anxieties, for the sake of their faith and in hopes of eternal reward. Martyrs had given up life itself, often in terrible torment, for precisely the same reason.
A monk might imitate the apostles or even the angels. The martyr had imitated Jesus (6). Thus one great appeal of martyrs and monks for the Christians was that they were unselfish protectors in a world where no one could do without a patron. They were also figures around whom communities could be built. This appeal of martyrs and monks brought about an uncountable number of conversions. MacMullen's argues that the transition to paganism was not desired by all.
The majority of those living outside of the cities had seen no reason to change religion. This is precisely why it was so important for Christianity to fill the gaps left by paganism. Christianity did not really absorb paganism, instead it assimilated some of its features to make the conversion of pagans easier. With the creation of the cults of the relics and patrons to watch over them, converts had to give very little up. Christianity had provided many attractive incentives to converts, without having to give anything up. This explains the expedient success Christianity had.