I love the people of Rome.
I don’t just mean modern Rome. I mean ancient Rome. And I don’t just mean the wizened old men of the Senate house. I mean people of every trade, every origin, every belief. I’ve held enough of their cookware to feel like a guest at dinner, and I’ve climbed enough of their old apartments to get a sense of their routine.
Working at Ostia has done that to me.
Perhaps not surprisingly, I get a little defensive about the people of ancient Ostia or Rome when I see them talked about in less than flattering terms. And if there’s one topic for which they still continually get sold short, it’s their nature of their religious beliefs.
Ritualistic, broken, even “silly,” (yes, I’ve heard one scholar describe Roman religion this way)—for several centuries it seems ancient Romans were just sitting around twiddling their thumbs waiting for the latest software update that would bring them into the modern world: Christianity!
But did Christianity really triumph because Roman religion “died”? (Extinction: here.) Or perhaps did Christianity triumph because it found a way to promise them intensely spiritual rewards, oh, let’s say, for example, “treasure in heaven”? I think the people in Rome were doing just fine, as is, well before Christianity came around.
But make no mistake about it: come around it certainly did.
How could we not be seduced by the story of Christianity’s rise to success? We’re still living with Christianity today. Naturally, we want to know how it grew from such a marginal movement in the Judean hills and Galilee to a Mediterranean phenomenon, one that eventually became the religion of the empire. How did it happen?
To date, there have been several explanations. One would be to attribute Christianity’s rise to its inherent intolerance for other people’s traditions (I’ll return to that problematic idea in another post). Another is to assume that Christianity’s success must have something to do with inherent flaws (a lack of charity, for example) in the religions of the Roman people. Too stale, too exotic, too conservative, too accommodating—who cares, in the end, whether the diagnoses all cancel each other out? Something must have been wrong of the lot of them. Romans must have been longing for something else.
The people of Ostia have taught me otherwise.
I’m not ready to call the day and time of death of their religions. They may be long dead, but that doesn’t mean we have to analyze their religions as if we were doing an autopsy. (My latest study–on religious dedications–appears here.) They had a vibrant set of traditions that saw them through several centuries of change. Some of them resisted that change. Others had little problem with it. We need to listen to what they have to say.
It might help us make new sense of the birth of a Christian Empire.