Who and where is the enemy?

I was looking at some books on the ancient world. A few of the books were on Rome, specifically the changes that happened after Christianization.

People often talk about the Barbarian invasions and the fall of Rome. But the fact of the matter is that the German tribes that ‘invaded’ were already there living in the empire. They had been mercenaries for generations and were trained by the Romans. They weren’t really ‘Barbarians’, in the sense of being a foreign pagan population that showed up from the wildlands beyond the Roman frontier.

These Germans were even already converted to Christianity, but it was at a time when Christianity was splintered in diverse traditions and beliefs. It’s quite likely that those in power feared the Germans because they adhered to heretical forms of Christianity. As far as that goes, most early Christians would be labeled as heretics by the heresiologists. That was fine until the heresiologists attempted to oppress and kill all competing Christian adherents. Maybe the German Christians took that personally and decided to fight for not just their sovereignty but also their religious freedom.

So, it was really just one population of Christians in Rome deciding to take power from or simply overthrow another population of Christians in Rome. Those Romanized and Christianized Germans would become the great monarchies and empires of Europe, such as the French Normans that turned much of Britain into England. And it was the Norman-descended Cavaliers who reinstated the monarchy after the English Civil War, creating modern England.

All that was meant in the ancient world by someone being Barbarian was that they were of a different ethnicity. It literally meant someone outside of one’s door, which is to say outside of one’s community. And in the Roman Empire, many ethnicities maintained separate communities. The Jews were Barbarians as well and the Romans feared them as well, although their earlier revolt failed.

It is interesting to think about those early German Christians that helped topple the Roman Empire. Maybe they were practicing for the later Protestant Reformation.

The original Lutherans, Anabaptists, Pietists, Moravians, Mennonites, Amish, etc were Germans. Calvin’s father came from the northern borderlands of the Roman Empire, in a town established by Romanized Gauls, and after Calvin escaped France Calvinism took hold in Switzerland. Huguenots also lived in the border regions of what once was the Roman Empire. The population out of which Puritanism arose, influenced by some of these German Christians, was of German descent. The English Midlands where the Scandinavians settled gave birth to Quakers and other dissenter traditions.

German Christians, along with other Northern European and British Christians, were constantly causing trouble. This challenging of religious authority lasted for more than a millennia. And to a lesser degree it continues. In the majority Germanic Midwest of the United States, this struggle over Christianity continues with much challenge and competition. The Midwestern Methodist church where my Germanic grandfather was once minister ended when some in the congregation challenged central church authority.

Christian authority is on the wane these days, though. American fundamentalists like to think of the United States as the last great bastion of Christian authority, like the Christianized Roman Empire once was. But if Washington is to fall as did Rome, it will likely be from an invading army of non-believers, of secularists, agnostics, and atheists. Maybe similar to those Germanic mercenaries but minus the Christianity, the defense contract mercenaries will grow so powerful that in their Godless capitalism they will turn against their weakened American rulers. Corporatism will be our new religion, as the American empire collapses and disintegrates into corporate fiefdoms. Some would argue that corporatism is already our new religion.

Anyway, if history is to be repeated, the so-called barbarians at the gates are already here. And they have been here for a while. They won’t need to invade, as they were welcomed in long ago and were enculturated into our society. The mercenaries of our society, whether taken literally or metaphorically, might turn out to be a fifth column. The enemy within might be those we perceive as protecting us, until it’s too late. Mercenaries aren’t always known for their loyalty. So, who are the mercenaries in our society, the guns-for-hire? And who is the real enemy in this situation? The mercenaries of our society would answer that question differently, as did the German mercenaries living in the Roman Empire.

Christians Dancing

In Dancing in the Streets, Barbara Ehrenreich writes that (p.58):

From a Roman perspective, Christianity was at first just another “oriental” religion coming out of the east, and, like others of similar provenance, attractive to women and the poor. It offered direct communion with the deity, with the promise of eternal life, but so did many of the other imported religions that so vexed the Roman authorities. In fact, there is reason to think that early Christianity was itself an ecstatic religion, overlapping the cult of Dionysus.

The Roman Empire looked east, to the “Orient”. Almost everything of significance was came from that direction where most of the other great empires, societies, and cities were to be found: Persia, Greece, Alexandria, etc. Jews and early Christians, to the Roman mind, were perceived as Easterners. A practice like circumcision made Jews stand out in Rome, but in the East there were other religions and ethnic groups that did the same thing.

Jews and Christians, along with Stoics and the worshippers of Dionysus, Isis, and many others — they were all hard to tell apart. Before the Romans came to power, the Greeks developed a worldview of everyone who wasn’t Greek was therefore a Barabarian. In the ancient world, it was only the ruling authorities of the empires that eventually became concerned about sorting people into the proper box and labeling them accordingly.

So, if you vaguely looked like or did anything approximating the behavior of some known group, that is who you’d get lumped with. Simply refusing to eat Pork because you were a vegetarian could get you accused of being a Jew. At times, being Jewish had great advantages and so large numbers converted to Judaism. And at other times, some other identity was preferable. Ancient people were often taken at their word. If you claimed to be a member of a particular religion, ethnicity or nationality, you’d likely be treated as such.

It wasn’t usually a matter of deception, though. Most ancient people had fluid and overlapping identities. The distinction between one group and another was often rather fuzzy. The various populations were constantly intermingling, borrowing traditions from each other, incorporating foreign elements into their religions, and otherwise shifting their identities and cultures as social and political conditions changed.

Ancient people didn’t think in modern terms. But there was beginning to be changes. With the rise of colonial and expansionist empires during the Axial Age, the greater contact put greater emphasis on identity. This can be sensed most clearly in the late Axial Age when religions like Christianity arose. If you were in the growing Roman Empire, how a group defined themselves and were perceived became increasingly important. This is why, “The obvious parallel between the Christ story and that of pagan victim gods was a source of great chagrin to second-century Church fathers” (p. 58). Paul, as a Roman citizen, was particularly concerned about making Christianity respectable to the Roman authorities and within Roman society.

This was a challenge. It was obvious to everyone involved that Christianity had borrowed heavily from diverse religious and philosophical traditions. There was nothing unique about early Christianity. There were thousands of small cults like it. The worst part about it, from a Roman perspective, is the stark similarities and connections to Eastern groups. And how could it be denied. The first Christians were themselves Jews who were from the East.

The Jews had spent centuries mixing up various oral traditions with elements of nearby religions before writing any of it down. Then the Jews became heavily enmeshed in Greek culture. In the centuries immediately prior to Christianity, many Jews were worshipping pagan deities, including the ancient practice of conflating deities. Yahweh, for many Jews and non-Jews alike, had become identified with Zeus and/or Dionysus, the relation between those two Greek gods laying the ground work for the relationship between Yahweh and Jesus. Ehrenreich briefly quotes from Robert M. Price’s “Christianty, Diaspora Judaism, and Roman Crisis” and here is the passage she quoted from:

What about the challenges of Diaspora assimilationism? There surely was such a thing as Jews taking attractive features of Gentile faiths and mixing them with their own. My caveat is just to say that wildly diverse Judaism already existed back in the Holy Land. And I would say the mythemes later assimilated from Hellenistic Mystery Religions were able to gain entry because they answered to elements already present in Judaism, perhaps all the more attractive once they had become forbidden fruit in the wake of Javneh. In other words, when the family next door celebrated the death and resurrection of Osiris or Adonis this might appeal to a Jew who was dimly aware that his grandfathers had celebrated pretty much the same rites in honor of Baal, Tammuz, or even Isaac, years before.17 2 Maccabees 6:7 tells us that Antiochus converted large numbers of Jews to the worship of Dionysus. One suspects it was no arduous task, given that some Greek writers already considered Jehovah simply another local variant of Dionysus anyway. The Sabazius religion of Phrygia is plainly an example of worshipping Jehovah as Dionysus. The Phrygian Attis was another version of Adam, his mother and lover Cybele a cognate form of Eve. No wonder the Naasene Document identifies the resurrected Jesus with both Attis and Adam. No wonder we have Jewish sarcophagi from this period depicting both the menorah and the symbol of the resurrected Attis.18

The temptations and challenges of the Diaspora only served to increase the diversity of ancient Judaism, a diversity directly reflected in emerging Christianity, which demonstrably partakes of Jewish Gnosticism,19 Zoroastrianism,20 the Mystery Cults, etc. As Rodney Stark has shown, Diaspora Jews remained a major and continuous source of new Christian converts on into the fifth century.21 Christianity would have been, Stark very plausibly surmises, the ideal assimilation vehicle, since the “new” faith allowed one to retain the cherished ethical monotheism of Judaism yet without keeping up the walls of purity rules that separated one (arbitrarily, as it seemed, and as it would seem again to nineteenth- and twentieth-century Reform Jews) from one’s neighbors. It seems to me that adherence to Christianity (the “true Israel”) would also have been the natural way of clinging to traditional elements of popular Judaism upon which Orthodoxy had frowned but which, as Barker shows, had never died out. I suspect that such Christian-leaning Jews eyed emergent Rabbinic Javneh Judaism as a modern product and viewed it as most pious non-Pharisaic Jews had always viewed the stricter party of the Pharisees (and the Essenes). It would have been entirely natural for Christianizing Jews, hanging on to cherished “underground” mythemes, etc., to have viewed themselves as the real Judaism, the old-time religion. We have, again, been too eager to take the Rabbinic claims to pedigree and originality at face value. Perhaps one more piece of evidence that this is a proper way to view matters is the otherwise odd fact that many Christians continued to attend synagogue for centuries, alongside church, often to the great consternation of their bishops. This implies that the synagogue-attenders viewed the defining label for their religiosity as Judaism, not as a new, split-off religion. Their Christianity was Judaism in their eyes, even if Christian bishops (like Chrysostom) and Jewish Rabbis alike bemoaned the fact.

That fascinates me endlessly. It was such a different world. Monotheism had yet to become monolithic because monotheism itself was a rather fuzzy concept. Sure, you could believe there is one true god, but which god and how many forms could he take. In practical terms, there is no absolute distinction between monotheism and polytheism. Even the Jews often referred to their god using a word that was plural, Elohim. There was a polytheism within Judaism that was very much within living memory of many ancient Jews. And it seems a cultural memory of this continued into the early centuries of Christianity, which maybe explains why there came to be so many violent purges by the heresiologists who gained power. In order to make Christianity into a new religion, they had to annihilate the last remnants of the old time religion. They were never entirely successful, but not for a lack of trying.

An area of struggle was the ecstatic tradition of Christianity. That is part of Ehrenreich’s focus in her book. What has dancing and related practices meant to humans over the millennia. We modern Westerners, especially Americans, don’t associate dancing with the Christian tradition. But there has been a long struggle about this within Christianity itself. And this struggle has taken many forms. One site of struggle has been the dancing so typical of carnivals and festivals. These ecstatic forms of religiosity have sometimes been included within Christianity, at other times they were merely tolerated, and at yet other times they were forbidden. There is evidence that in early Christianity dance was considered by many as a normal expression of worship and devotion. But it isn’t entirely clear what kind of dance it was. Ehrenreich discusses this in great detail (pp. 65-66):

Most of what Christians of the first and second centuries actually did together—whether they even possessed a standardized form of worship, for example—is unknown to us today, but the general scholarly view is that “church services were noisy, charismatic affairs, quite different from a tasteful evensong today at the parish church.”20 They met in people’s homes, where their central ritual was a shared meal that was no doubt washed down with Jesus’ favorite beverage, wine.21 There is reason to think they sang too, and that the songs were sometimes accompanied by instrumental music. 22 Justin Martyr, a gentile convert who died at the hands of the Romans in 165 CE, once wrote that children should sing together, “just as in the same way one enjoys songs and similar music in church.”23 Very likely, Christians also danced; at least this is how the historian Louis Backman interpreted various statements of the second-century Church fathers. Clement of Alexandria (150-216 CE), for example, instructed the faithful to “dance in a ring, together with the angels, around Him who is without beginning or end,” suggesting that the Christian initiation rite included a ringdance around the altar. At another point Clement wrote that in order to invoke the “zest and delight of the spirit,” Christians “raise our heads and our hands to heaven and move our feet just at the end of the prayer—pedes excitamus,” where, according to Backman, pedes excitamus is “a technical term for dancing.”24

So Christians sang and possibly danced, but did they dance ecstatically, as did members of the old Dionysian cults? The evidence for ecstatic dancing, such as it is, hinges on Paul’s instruction, in his letter to the Corinthian congregation, that women should keep their heads covered in church (1 Cor. 11:5). This may represent nothing more than a concern that Christianity remain within the normal pagan and Jewish bounds of gender decorum. After all, Paul did not want women prophesying or even speaking in church, despite the fact that he worked with women as fellow proselytizers and had at one point proclaimed that “male and female are one in Christ.” An alternative explanation for the head-covering rule, proposed by the theologian E. S. Fiorenza, is that the women of Corinth were becoming a little too exuberant for Paul’s tastes.

It seems that during their ecstatic-pneumatic worship celebrations some of the Corinthian women prophets and liturgists unbound their hair, letting it flow freely rather than keeping it in its fashionable coiffure, which often was quite elaborate and enhanced with jewelry, ribbons and veils. Such a sight of disheveled hair would have been quite common in the ecstatic worship of oriental deities.25

Roman women spent hours on their tight coiffures, leaving the long, unbound look to the worshippers of Dionysus, Cybele, and Isis. If we know one thing about Paul, it is that he was greatly concerned about making Christianity respectable to the Romans, and hence as little like the other “oriental” religions—with their disorderly dancing women—as possible.

This may seem like a rather tenuous inference, but the association between hair-tossing and ecstatic practice is widespread and was well established in the ancient world.

All that we know of early Christianity, along with most other early religions, is a fading memory of what came before. It was that fading memory that was written down and typically written down by those who were attempting to eliminate the traces of that memory. All that we can be certain of is that modern Christianity probably has little if any resemblance to early Christianity, in either substance or form.

 

* * *

Dance of the Savior

The Round Dance–text and commentary
by Michael Howard

Singing with the Savior: Reconstructing the Ritual Ring-dance in the Gospel of the Savior
by Erik Yinglin

The Evolution of Sacred Dance in the JudeoChristian Tradition
by Jade Luerssen

Greek Dance: An Ancient Link — A Living Heritage
by Athan Karras

Jesus as Lord of the Dance
From early Christianity to medieval Nubia

by Paul Dilley

Galen and the Roman Empire

I listened to the audio version of a biography about Galen, and reading sections of the text. The author is Susan P. Mattern. The title of the book is The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire.

The title is fitting. The author does a great job of describing and explaining the society Galen lived in, the early Roman Empire. I’ve read a fair amount about that time, but this is the first book that gave me a clear sense of how different it was compared to the world today.

Mattern also made clear what this meant for a Greek like Galen. It was tricky business navigating that often dangerous world. As a physician and anatomist, he had a career that was highly respected and ruthlessly competitive. It meant not just having the skills and knowledge to heal people, but also to be a philosopher, performer, and much else.

There was one thing that stood out to me more than anything. Everything was social. Our notion of individuality would have been incomprehensible to them. They seemed to have done everything as a social activity.

When a person needed medical care, friends and family would accompany the patient. And if they needed long term care, those friends and family would stay with the patient for as long as it took, someone constantly at their bedside. These friends and family would advocate for the patient, even arguing with the physician.

That was the easy part of the job. Someone like Galen had his own entourage of students, followers, and friends. Either with Galen or out in a group, these social groups would roam the streets and public spaces of whatever city they were in. There were many other social groups with other leaders. It wasn’t easy to distinguish physicians, philosophers, monks, and other similar types. For example, Jesus and his disciples would have been just one group among endless groups.

These groups constantly were seeking other groups to challenge and debate. Anyone who wanted to be a leader was forced to accept challenges and to deal with hecklers. Sometimes physical fights broke out.

Another interesting thing relates to my other readings about ancient societies. Others have noted that even into the Roman Empire evidence of the bicameral mind could still be found. In Christian religious texts, body parts were sometimes described as having minds of their own.

This carryover of bicameralism apparently even was found in the medical theories back then. Here is a description of this from Mattern’s book, although the author doesn’t acknowledge its strangeness (pp. 232-233):

“He mentions speaking with many women who described themselves as “hysterical,” that is, having an illness caused, as they believed, by a condition of the uterus (hystera in Greek) whose symptoms varied from muscle contractions to lethargy to nearly complete asphyxia (Loc. Affect. 6.5, 8.414K). Galen, very aware of Herophilus’s discovery of the broad ligaments anchoring the uterus to the pelvis, denied that the uterus wandered around the body like an animal wreaking havoc (the Hippocratics imagined a very actively mobile womb). But the uterus could, in his view, become withdrawn in some direction or inflamed; and in one passage he recommends the ancient practice of fumigating the vagina with sweet-smelling odors to attract the uterus, endowed in this view with senses and desires of its own, to its proper place; this technique is described in the Hippocratic Corpus but also evokes folk or shamanistic medicine.”

This bicameralism (or whatever one wants to call it) was already in decline at this point. It’s unlikely that many Roman citizens actually experienced bicameralism. But bicameralism was still recent enough that the traces of it survived in the cultural heritage.

The Roman Empire existed through the late Axial Age. It was a time of transition. The seeds were being planted for modernity. Yet much of the ancient world still held immense power.

To Be Ruled By Engineers

“Some of the sources of Chinese success and American decay are not entirely mysterious. As it happens, the typical professional background of a member of China’s political elite is engineering; they were taught to build things. Meanwhile, a remarkable fraction of America’s political leadership class attended law school, where they were trained to argue effectively and to manipulate. Thus, we should not be greatly surprised that while China’s leaders tend to build, America’s leaders seem to prefer endless manipulation, whether of words, money, or people.”
~ Ron Unz, China’s Rise, America’s Fall

This made me think of two things.

First, American poitics isn’t just dominated by lawyers and legal experts. It is also dominated by business managers.

The legal types are great at rhetoric and persuasion. They are the sophists of the modern age. They play at being statesmen, but law school doesn’t prepare them for what is needed to be statesmen. They are experts in legalese and so they create more of it, with bills so complex that even they can’t understand it all. Obfuscation is a large part of the game, clever minds trying to outwit other clever minds, and yet none of them as clever as they think they are. They get so lost in words and abstractions that they forget a democracy is supposed to be about the people.

The business types, however, have a different but equally problematic mindset. They see the government and the population as something to be managed. They are the technocrats who see themselves as a meritocratic plutocracy of pragmatic problem-solvers. They will get things done, democracy be damned, but they don’t actually know how to get things done because a democratic government is about as opposite as one can get from a for-profit corporation. The only way for them to succeed according to their skill set is to make government into an extension of business. That is how we ended up with what some call soft fascism, corporatism, or inverted totalitarianism.

These are the twin forces of bureaucracy. Neither type is trained for building things. They aren’t engineers. They don’t even have the training to deal with objective reality, as neither are they scientists. Far fewer have any kind of experience that would connect them to the larger world, especially to the lives and experience of most Americans.

They exist in a bubble. As I recall, in recent history, all presidents, vice presidents, and every major party candidate for those positions have come from one of two Ivy League schools, Harvard and Yale. Many of them belonged to the same fraternities and clubs, socialize among the same people at the same events, live in the same neighborhoods, go to the same churches, send their children to the same private schools, and get the basically same info from the same sources.

I’m not saying the Chinese political elite don’t also live in a bubble. But at least they have real world knowledge about building things. Is it any wonder that the American infrastructure is not being maintained and most definitely not being expanded? Americans once built great things. That is no longer the case.

I don’t see it as a mere coincidence that American mainstream society used to revere engineers and scientists. At one time, there was a great push to get American kids into these fields. The engineers and scientists were highly respected. They were the hereoes during an era when we were competing against first Nazi engineers and scientists and then later against Soviet engineers and scientists. With the ending of the Cold War, Americans have lost their edge and even China’s challenging our power has only been met with apathy and cynicism. Now Americans attack scientists as anti-American and, since the Space Race ended, don’t give much thought at all to engineers.

The Chinese aspire toward power and greatness. Whether or not they will succeed, that is their vision as a society, especially among the ruling elite. They do make major mistakes in thei engineering schemes, as they seek to socially engineer an entire society, but at least they are trying to improve themselves. We Americans, on the other hand, rest on our laurels. Too much success and power has made us lazy and self-satisfied.

The second thing I was reminded of is Rome. Americans inherited the European love of comparing themselves to Rome. The Roman Empire is the touchstone for Western Civilization. In that light, I offer the following:

“Rome lived upon its principal till ruin stared it in the face. Industry is the only true source of wealth, and there was no industry in Rome. By day the Ostia road was crowded with carts and muleteers, carrying to the great city the silks and spices of the East, the marble of Asia Minor, the timber of the Atlas, the grain of Africa and Egypt; and the carts brought out nothing but loads of dung. That was their return cargo.”
 ~ Winwood Reade, The Martyrdom of Man

That quote touched upon something that come up in a recent conversation. I forget the context, but the point made was about the contrast between the early and late Roman Empire. Romans didn’t start out as a ruling elite operating a bureaucratic empire. What allowed them to become an empire in the first place was that they were great engineers. They built things better than other people did, from roads to aqueducts.

Importantly, Romans weren’t even the most innovative society. The Greeks produced greater thinkers. It was the Romans who were better at building armies and waging war, and hence they defeated the Greeks. But once victorious, Romans were only able to build their great society by borrowing from the great thinkers of other societies, such as the Greeks.

That resonates with today. Many Americans will say admit that the Chinese are smarter and maybe are better at building things. However, we are supposed to believe that America will always come out ahead because we are innovative. Chinese are better taught in terms of the rote memory that is necessary for science and engineering, but Americans have more patents and nobel prizes. Ignoring that much of America’s innovation comes from immigrants, I’m not sure innovation by itself will keep us on top, assuming we want to stay on top.

The ancient Greeks boasted of having had a great society. Without Hellenism, Rome as we know it wouldn’t be possible. Still, I doubt it comforted those defeated Greeks that at least their culture lived on in the Roman Empire. As the US declines, should Americans comfort themselves that American culture has left a permanent mark on the world.

There was something that once made this country unique.

“When Thomas Huxley, a famous British biologist, visited America in 1876, he asked, as the ship approached the New York harbor, what were the tower and the tall building with a cupola – then the city’s most conspicuous structures. When he was told that they were the Tribune newspaper and the Western Union Telegraph buildings, he replied, “Ah, that is interesting; that is American. In the Old World the first thing you see as you approach a great city are [church] steeples; here you see first, centers of intelligence.””
 ~ Andrew Friend, A Bell Curve, Kindle Location 763

Now, as we look at growing US cities, what are the buildings that dominate the skyline?

Here in my local community, the tallest or one of the tallest buildings in the downtown used to be for a tech industry company. However, the most recent tallest buildings built are high-rise apartment buildings for the super wealthy and they are smack dab in the center of town, dominating not just the skyline but also towering over the public space of the pedestrian mall (one part of the pedestrian mall has for all intents and purposes been made into the front yard for one of these high-rises). That symbolically shows who dominates and rules this town.

In other places, the tallest buildings are increasingly finance-oriented. Many have noted the increasing financializatioin of the US economy. It should, of course, be noted that this financialization is propped up by the US dollar which is in turn propped up by debt the US owes China.

The US once could have been compared to the Greek Alexandrian Empire, but now the closer comparison is the late Roman Empire. Signs of decline and decay are everywhere. Yet our military might remains immense. We could hobble along like this for a few more generations. Or we could choose to not repeat history and instead take a different path.

Borders in Europe and the World

I’ve been reading about European history lately and came across some map videos. I thought I’d share, as they are interesting. It helps me understand what I’ve been reading.

The first one is about the past 1,000 years of European history. That is the time-frame I’ve been focusing upon, most specifically the Roman Empire.

One thing that stood out to me in my reading is how the Romans weren’t identified as Europeans in terms of culture, politics, and economics. Most of their attention was focused toward the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Near East. At the height of their power, they controlled all the land directly surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. This is clearly seen as the Empire grows in the first video:

The next one also focuses on Europe with a larger time-frame. The one after that further broadens the scope to other geographical regions. I also included two other videos for the fun of it. The third one below untangles the complexity of Great Britain, United Kingdom, and England. And the last explores truly complex borders in the world.

The Early Roman Catholic Church

Christianity of the fourth and fifth centuries took the carrot and stick approach of the Roman Empire, but applied it to more dogmatic ends.  Rome was ruthless to its enemies, and yet a conquered people if they were willing to submit gained great prosperity and stability by becoming a part of the Empire.  Within the Empire, there were profound moral and spiritual philosophies which were carryovers from the Hellenism of the Alexandrian Age.  However, the Empire was built upon conquest and slavery. 

Then Constantine legalized Christianity.  Carrying on the moral tradition of Stoicism (Natural Law), Christians began to counter some of the atrocities of Roman culture, but not very quickly and adding some of their own atrocities in the process.  In the immediate, all the Catholics did was exchange a Roman elite for a church orthodoxy elite, and the politics were no less treacherous.  Still, many Christian preachers spoke of ideals that were very attractive to the common person (even though the church often didn’t live up to those ideals). 

Christians turned out to be very bad administrators of the Roman Empire and they (along with destabilizing influx of Germans) helped run it into the ground, but for the common person life was in some ways easier with Roman authority waning.  The Christians eventually replaced slavery with serfdom which was moderately better, and more importantly they ended the gladiatorial fights.  In the Christianized  Middle Ages, life was relatively good as long as you were cautiously submissive to those who ruled over you and never questioned orthodoxy.  The intellectual, scientific, and religious greatness of Rome was gone, but the simple agrarian life of serfdom wasn’t too bad except for the constant warring of the fiefdoms. 

Despite Christianity’s idealizations of God’s love and grace, the Catholic church was often more brutally intolerant than was the Pagan Roman Empire.  For certain, the Pagan Romans never came close to persecuting Christians to the degree that the Catholic church did.  The Catholic Church had less power than the Roman Empire and so they had to use what power they had more forcefully.  A Roman citizen had great freedom, but absolute conformity was demanded of the Catholic.  It wasn’t an age of morality…. not what we’d call morality in the modern world.  Any means were considered justified if they served the ends demanded by the church.  Many of the early church fathers admitted to and advocated lying and deceit if it would help to convert people and help maintain the authority of the church.  Of course, lying and deceit were the least worse activities the church was involved with.

One seeming advantage of the Fall of the Roman Empire was the return to city-states.  Greek thought arose out of city-states and out of that Hellenism was born.  Later on in Europe, the Italian city-states for instance led to a renewed cultural creativity.  Maybe imperialism is always untenable in the long run, but sadly when if fails it leads to truly oppressive regimes such as the Catholic church.  The one truly good thing the Romans gave was systematization of Hellenistic philosophies.  It was because Rome spread Hellenistic ideas so widely that the Catholic church wasn’t able to entirely wipe it all out.

The strange thing is that Hellenism survived in the Eastern Empire much longer.  I’m not sure why that was.  Was the Eastern Orthodox church less oppressive or just less powerful?  What makes the Catholic church so unique in its early brutality?  Greek thought arose out of a diversity of thinking.  The Alexandrian Age brought that diversity into an even larger context of cultures.  Even the Romans, despite their legalistic systematizing, encouraged great diversity in the early centuries of their rule.  Why did that diversity start to wane and why did this encourage a social system like that of Catholicism in the fourth and fifth centuries?  How could the greatness of a thousand years of Graeco-Roman brilliance fall under the ignorant tyranny of the early Catholic church?

The funny thing is that Christians were ruling the Empire when Rome was sacked and it was sacked by Christians.  The Catholic church had started to get heavy-handed in its persecutions near the end of the fourth century.  One of the heresies was Arianism.  The German Visigoths had been converted to Arianism and they came in and kicked the Catholic Empire in the balls.  When you think about it, the German Christians kept on causing problems for many centuries to come.  Its interesting that Protestantism later arose where the heretical Christians last took refuge.  And what is even more interesting is the era of the return of the popularity of heretical thought starting around the twelfth century which led to the Reformation and the Renaissance.  Diversity and cultural creativity decreased as the power of Catholicism increased, and then diversity and cultural creativity increased as the power of Catholicism decreased.