John Bergsma does a fine job of exploding the silly suburban bourgeois myth that ancient paganism was a world of buttercup twirling goddess worshippers that was inexplicably routed by brutal and intolerant followers of Christ. The tolerance of the classical world was the essence of its brutality and the intolerance of the Christians for it casual brutality was the only thing that set about reforming it:
To take an example more or less at random… Tacitus relates the tale of the murder of Pedanius Secundus in A.D. 61 by one of his own slaves, which brought into effect the ancient custom that in such cases all the slaves of the household should be put to death— a custom that meant, on this occasion, the execution of approximately four hundred men, women, and children. There was, commendably enough, considerable public protest against the killing of so many innocents, but the Senate concluded that the ancient ways must be honored, if only for the example the slaughter would set, and nowhere in the course of the debate, it appears, was any concept of divine justice or spiritual virtue invoked. That might seem a rather irrelevant anecdote here, admittedly, but the points to note are that the social order that the imperial cults sustained and served was one that rested, not accidentally but essentially, upon a pervasive, relentless, and polymorphous cruelty, and that to rebel against those cults was to rebel also against that order.
“This, above all, must be remembered when assessing the relative openness or exclusivity of ancient creeds. We may recall with palpable throbs of fond emotion how the noble Symmachus pleaded for a greater toleration of pagan practices, and we may generally be disposed to endorse his view that the roads to truth are many; but we would do well to avoid excessive sentimentality all the same….It should probably neither surprise nor particularly disturb us, then, to discover that Christians of the late fourth century were not very inclined to agree with Symmachus that all religious paths led toward the same truth, given that one could walk so many of those paths quite successfully without ever turning aside to bind up the wounds of a suffering stranger, and without even pausing in alarm before unwanted babies left to be devoured by wild beasts, or before the atrocities of the arena, or before mass executions. If, as Christians believed, God had revealed himself as omnipotent love, and if true obedience to God required a life of moral heroism, in service to even “the least of these,” how should Christians have viewed the religious life of most pagans if not as a rather obscene coincidence of spiritual servility and moral callousness? And how should they have viewed the gods from whose power Christ had liberated them if not as spirits of strife, ignorance, chaos, fate, and elemental violence, whose cults and devotions were far beneath the dignity of creatures fashioned in the divine image?”
The world of paganism was–always and everywhere and for all of human history–a world of a few masters riding the back of a lot of slaves because slavery is the room temperature state of fallen man. The only thing that has ever come close to pushing it back–and then only tenuously–is the Christian tradition. What spoiled moderns forget in their neopagan dilettantism is that all these dark forces in the human soul are all still there and are itching to find a way to be expressed again using all the tools modern technology provides. If we reject Jesus, we will get ourselves–the same brutal creature that decided it’s a good idea to butcher 400 innocents, just to keep the lower orders in line. We still need a savior.