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A Bit of Ancient History - Modern and Past

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As the Roman Republic gave way to the huge Empire, people found themselves less and less meaningful politically and many of them were destitutes, only owning their own children. So they turned to religion; but rather than going back to the old ways, too closely associated with the state and its problems, they sought a new level of involvement and found it in a new kind of religion: the mysteric cults. Those had a higher level of individual involvement, made no difference between rich and poor, offering personal, immanent hope from outside the context to even the lowest slum-dwellers; those tightly-knit communities made for a very different outlook on life and grew a lot in the first centuries. They all came from Rome’s eastern lands, and beyond that – Greek cults, Egyptian rebirth beliefs (Serapid, Isis, Osyris) and Persian worship.

Enter Christianity. It shared with those the personal promise of delivery and salvation, but also happened to be different as it firmly stayed outside of the Imperial religion system, was somewhat more proselytic and carne from Hebraism, which had a poor rap ever since the First Jewish War. This led to Christianity being always suspect, and often victim of attacks; rumors of cannibal banquets and incestuous orgies (the first name for what is now known as Mass was agape, brotherly love) spread and were used to justify almost constant, if often low-key, persecution between 150 and 300. Despite this, Christianity was popular enough with the élites and always strong and endured; it even had heresies condemning those who knelt under the pressure.

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So as the 3rd Century crisis unfolded, Western Roman fortunes started permanently reversing and more and more people found themselves poor, they also couldn’t but notice that Christianity seemed stronger than even Rome and its main cults. Diocletian’s last attempt at persecutions showed the difference – what had been a mere execution of a few odd fanatics before now required extensive sanctions to try and drive a wedge between the cult leaders and the believers. And still, it failed; but Christianity was not the only strong cult. There is some ambiguity on the legendary cross sign of Constantine – remember that in early Christianity, the fish was the main symbol, and the Cross of Light could well be spun into a symbol of Apollo or Mithras (and indeed did, to an extent). However, the remarkable strength and the appearance of unity of the Christians led Constantine to their endorsement in an attempt to bolster the failing Roman state; and from there, in a few decades, Christendom became the main force in the Empire.

As you note, of course support for the old religions didn’t fade overnight; the old cults lacked formal structure though (which, interestingly, was the main thrust of Julian’s attempted reforms) and thus lacked strong political support. So they found themselves unable to capitalize and employ still strong sympathies all around the Empire, slowly falling out of favor as Christians encroached on them; their beliefs were somewhat taken over later, and remained strong for centuries to come. In the 8th Century, another Emperor named Constantine noted that there still were strong local majorities for paganism in Greece.

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