The Myth of Tolerant Paganism

The Myth of Tolerant Paganism December 21, 2011

My former post December 25th Means the Triumph of Christianity over Paganism caused a bit of an uproar in pagan circles. Just read the comments. My wife reads my blog so I won’t repeat the content of some of those comments. Across the street at the Patheos Portal, Star Foster responds in a post When Interfaith Gets Ugly, with me obviously being the “ugly”. Now I’m not exactly a chip off a chippendale, my teeth are more crooked than the Governor if Illinois, and women tend to treat me with a mixture of contempt and disdain (and that’s just my mother).  But I did find Star’s own response to me a bit ugly when she wrote this:

When I see you attempt to rewrite history, to paint your anarchic, martyr-hungry ancestors as victims, I don’t get angry anymore.

Let me get this right. Christians were anarchic and were deliberately looking to get themselves martyred? Okay, I’ll admit that there were a few (esp. in North Africa) who set out to become martyrs, but they were a very small number, and their quest for martyrdom was criticized by church leaders. But it was hardly typical of the majority of men, women, and children who were butchered for their Christian faith. Now if that is not bad enough, in the comments she claims that (1)  the early Christians pretty much got what they deserved for failing to do their “civic duty,” (2) The early Christians were “disturbers of the peace” and drew “hostility” on themselves; (3) “Rome’s thriving Jewish population had no problem with performing their civic duty or living with their non-Jewish neighbors”; and (4) “The ancient world was a religiously tolerant place”. Now the professional historians and grad students among you know that is just patently false. This young lady does not know what the smurf she’s talking about. Though I am also left wondering if Miss Foster would regard Amnesty International’s reports of brutality towards Christian minorities in Africa and Asia as a desperate effort to paint this “martyr-hungry” group as “victims” when they clearly not? A contemporary application of her thesis to the present time would be morally disturbing.

I’m a historian, so I’m well aware of the good and the bad, the gravy and the grit of Christian history. My good friend Rev. Dr. John Dickson has a book due out called Why Christianity is Better and Worse than you Knew (or a title to that effect). Christianity triumphed over the Roman Empire, but in another sense – with both blessing and bane – Christianity became the Empire. So I’ve got no misconceptions about Christian history, it gave us the Mother Theresa and the Crusades!

But it seems to me that these pagan folks just don’t have the foggiest clue about the Roman Empire and its socio-religious propaganda and apparatus. They are utterly ignorant of the persecution of Christians, especially under the Emperors Nero, Domitian, Decius, and Diocletian, and what brutal reprisals took place against Christianity. So listen up my pagan friends for a quick historical lesson on the violence and intolerance of pagan Romans towards Jews and Christians. You can perpetuate the myth of a tolerant and inclusive paganism all you like, but this “myth” will flounder up the bedrock of history as I’m about to show you.

1. As Duke Uni Professor Kavin Rowe (World Upside Down, 162) writes: “[T]he notion that polytheistic religions issue in political tolerance and cultural understanding is at best a serious distortion of the realities of the Graeco-Roman world.” Roman authorities distinguished between religio licita (legal) and religio illicita (illegal). They treated foreign or new religions with violent contempt. For instance, Maecenas gave a speech to Octavian (i.e., Augustus) that: “You should not only worship the divine everywhere and in every way in accordance with our ancestral traditions, but also force all others to honor it. Those who attempt to distort our religion with strange rites you should hate and punish, not only for the sake of the gods … but also because such people, by bringing in new divinities, persuade many folks to adopt foreign practices, which lead to conspiracies, revolts, and factions, which are entirely unsuitable for monarch” (Dio Cassius, Hist. Rom. 52.36.1-2). Force people to obey your religion and hate those who refuse to.  In fact, Roman pagans brutalized other pagans like the Bacchic cult in the second century BC and the Druids in the first century AD. Do you feeeeel the tolerance!

2. Pagan cultural, political, and intellectual elites in Rome were notoriously xenophobic and routinely anti-semitic.  In order to protect the purity of its own religious traditions, the Romans routinely expelled foreigners from Egypt, Judea, and the East. The Jews were expelled from Rome in 139 BC, 19 AD, and 49 AD. Harry Leon’s old book The Jews of Ancient Rome, is still worth reading, in that it details the tumultuous and complex relationships that Roman Jews had in Rome, and it wasn’t all rosy. Things were fairly positive under Julius Caesar (Roman Jews formed a large segment of his funeral), while things were horrid under Tiberius (mainly due to his lieutenant Sejanus), and Caligula attempted to have a statue of himself erected in the Holy of holies in the temple in Jerusalem, and was willing to cause a civil war over it. For a standard example, consider Tacitus’ attitude towards the Jews:

This worship, however introduced, is upheld by its antiquity; all their other customs, which are at once perverse and disgusting, owe their strength to their very badness. The most degraded out of other races, scorning their national beliefs, brought to them their contributions and presents. This augmented the wealth of the Jews, as also did the fact, that among themselves they are inflexibly honest and ever ready to shew compassion, though they regard the rest of mankind with all the hatred of enemies. They sit apart at meals, they sleep apart, and though, as a nation, they are singularly prone to lust, they abstain from intercourse with foreign women; among themselves nothing is unlawful. Circumcision was adopted by them as a mark of difference from other men. Those who come over to their religion adopt the practice, and have this lesson first instilled into them, to despise all gods, to disown their country, and set at nought parents, children, and brethren. Still they provide for the increase of their numbers. It is a crime among them to kill any newly-born infant. (Tacitus, Hist. 5.5)

If this is not bad enough listen to what the Emperor Domitian did to one of his relatives who converted to Judaism (or Christianity according to Eusebius):

And the same year Domitian slew, along with many others, Flavius Clemens the consul, although he was a cousin and had to wife Flavia Domitilla, who was also a relative of the emperor. The charge brought against them both was that of atheism, a charge on which many others who drifted into Jewish ways were condemned. Some of these were put to death, and the rest were at least deprived of their property, Domitilla was merely banished to Pandateria. (Dio Cassius, Hist. 67.14.1-2)

If you read the rhetoric voiced against Jews in Greek and Latin literature, you’ll notice that being a Jew in ancient Rome was not always easy.

3. Christians were persecuted by Romans authorities because they were “other,” because they refused to honor the local gods and so dishonored both the gods and their worshippers, they refused to worship the Emperor and were thus disloyal to the state. Persecution of Christians happened in a variety of ways including social ostracization, confiscation of property, loss of public office, anti-Christian riots, and spasmodically in capital punishment. Perhaps the most well-known account is that of Nero’s cruel pogrom against Christians in Rome in the mid-60s AD. Tacitus noted how Nero blamed Christians for the burning of Rome. He picked on the Christians because by they were hated by the masses and they were tortured for public amusement! Tacitus reports:

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed. (Annals 15.44).

Consider too Pliny the Younger’s letter to the Emperor Trajan (ca. 112-13 AD) when he seeks advice on how to deal with the prevalence of people being denounced as Christians in Bithynia:

It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. And I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished. Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome. Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ–none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do–these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition. I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.  (Pliny the Elder, Ep.10.96-96).

In this context, merely claiming to be a Christian and failing to renounce Christ was an act of treason and sacrilege, punishable by death. People were denounced as Christians and dragged before the governor for trial. In some cases tortured too. Doesn’t sound like people who are “martyr-hungry”.

A further dramatic story of martyrdom is found in Eusebius who provides an account of the Gallic martyrs who were murdered for their faith in Gaul in the 180s AD. Eusebius reproduces a letter from the Gallic Church:

The severity of our trials here, the unbridled fury of the pagans against God’s people, the untold sufferings of the blessed martyrs, we are incapable of describing in detail; indeed no pen could do them justice. The adversary swooped on us with all his might, giving us now a foretaste of his advent, which undoubtedly is imminent . He left no stone unturned in his efforts to train his adherents and equip them to attack the servants of God, so that not only were we debarred from houses, baths, and the forum; they actually forbade any of us to be seen in any place whatever. But against them the grace of God put itself at our head, rescuing the weak and deploying against our enemies unshakable pillars, able by their endurance to draw upon themselves the whole onslaught of the evil one. These charged into the fight, standing up to every kind of abuse and punishment, and made light of their heavy load as they hastened to Christ, proving beyond a doubt that the sufferings of the present time are not to be compared with the glory that is in store for us. To begin with, they heroically endured whatever the surging crowd heaped on them, noisy abuse, blows, dragging along the ground, plundering, stoning, imprisonment, and everything that an infuriated mob normally does to hated enemies. Then they were marched into the forum and interrogated by the tribune and the city authorities before the whole population. When they confessed Christ, they were locked up in jail to await the governor’s arrival. Later, when they were taken before him and he treated them with all the cruelty he reserves for Christians, Vettius Epagathus, one of our number, full of love towards God and towards his neighbor, came forward. His life conformed so closely to the Christian ideal that, young as he was, the same tribute might be paid to him as to old Zacharias; he had scrupulously observed all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord, and was untiring in service to his neighbor, utterly devoted to God, and fervent in spirit. As such he found the judgment so unreasonably given against us more than he could bear; boiling with indignation, he applied for permission to speak in defense of the Christians, and to prove that there was nothing godless or irreligious in our society. The crowd round the tribunal howled him down, as he was a man of influence, and the governor dismissed his perfectly reasonable application with the curt question, ‘Are you a Christian?’ In the clearest possible tones Vettius replied, ‘I am.’

Now I could go on and mention the martyrdoms of Bishop Ignatius (ca. 110 AD), Bishop Polycarp (ca. 150 AD), Justin Martyr  (ca. 165 AD), and the Perpetua and Felicity (ca. 203 AD) to name a few. But the post is long enough and you get the point. Pagans killed Christians because they hated them!

For a deeper reflection on Christian understanding of martyrdom, see Michael Jensen’s volume Martyrdom and Identity: The Self on Trial (New York: Continuum, 2010).

Ancient paganism was hardly a tolerant, inclusive, pluralistic, and gentle religious option. It was an instrument, even a chaplain, to the most violent and oppressive political power of its day. Note, I’m describing Roman paganism, not a bunch of new age Wiccans in Wisconsin. I have no interest in the contemporary expressions of paganism which I imagine to be radically different from ancient paganism. But you pagans out there need to face up to the fact that pagan religion was an instrument of oppression and violence against Jews and Christians in antiquity! It’s part of your heritage, you don’t have to like it (there’s plenty of parts of my Christian heritage that I don’t like). But please, please stop telling the world that Christians (young, old, male, female,  even children) deserved to be ripped apart by wild beasts for refusing to worship the pagan gods. Stop telling the story that all Christians went looking for martyrdom.  I have to ask, did the Christians who suffered these fates deserve them for, well, refusing to be pagans? I earnestly wait for the answers, especially from the historically informed Miss Star Foster whose knowledge of Jews, Christians, and Pagans in ancient Rome evidently rivals that of most Roman historians I know given that her assertions on the subject contradict the received historical narratives of the past!

"How did this book reinforce or challenge your theology?"

Reading Christian Theology in the Protestant ..."
"I'm not familiar with David nor have I read his book though I hope to ..."

A War of Loves – The ..."
"My wife and I attended our first Holy Week vigil at a local Roman Catholic ..."

Flemming Rutlege on Good Friday
"The Holy Gospels of Our Lord are 'testaments' to Him, to His teachings, to how ..."

Why Were the Gospels Written?

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Michael Jensen

    Thanks for the mention! My book is out in paperback too, and costs about $100 less than the hardback!

  • Dave Burke

    Modern pagans foolishly deluded themselves into thinking that ancient pagans were just a slightly browner version of well educated Westerners with postmodern values. It’s a remarkable exercise in irrational belief.

    The fact that they are hopelessly uneducated about the socio-historical context of ancient paganism and the peoples they claim as their ideological forebears, is just icing on the cake.

    • William

      Then you’ve only interacted with a certain sector of modern paganism. Many of us recognize that our ancestors were not perfect, our only point is that they weren’t as bad as you try to make them out to be. To hear modern Christians talk, their ideological forebears were just peace-loving hippies minding their own business when “the Man” came along and started suppressing them because “the Man” just HATES peace. BS. Does ancient Roman paganism’s “ideological intolerance” include their freedom to practice multiple foreign rites such as the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Cult of Isis, Mithraism, Rites of Bacchus (after initial suppression), etc. etc. Yeah, sounds really intolerant. As to totalitarianism, did you know that income disparity is worse in the modern US than it was in the Roman Empire? Yeah, those people were really suffering.

      • Dave Burke


        Many of us recognize that our ancestors were not perfect, our only point is that they weren’t as bad as you try to make them out to be.

        I’m familiar with the modern pagan whitewash of history. No need to reiterate it here.

        To hear modern Christians talk, their ideological forebears were just peace-loving hippies minding their own business when “the Man” came along and started suppressing them because “the Man” just HATES peace.

        Then you’ve only interacted with a certain sector of modern Christianity.

        Nevertheless, that stereotype is not so far from the truth. Ancient Christians were just minding their own business (they were non-violent and respected Roman law except where it conflicted with their beliefs), but were brutally oppressed by intolerant pagans for their refusal to conform to state authority.

        As a non-Christian, I would have thought you’d relate to that.

        AFAICS, modern Christians are more pragmatic and realistic about the sins of their forebears than modern pagans are about the sins of the ancient peoples whose beliefs they have stolen and reinvented to suit themselves.

        As to totalitarianism, did you know that income disparity is worse in the modern US than it was in the Roman Empire?

        How is that even vaguely relevant to the topic under discussion?

    • Anonymous

      Actually, most Pagans don’t think that. We understand that hate was carried out on the back of a religio-government, both in Pagan forms and Christian ones (as well as numerous other faiths). It’s one of the reasons that many American Pagans are very glad that we have protections in place to prevent our country from being manipulated into such a deadly combination.

      “In reality, as history confirms, they were a violent bunch of thugs whose xenophobia was exceeded only by their ideological intolerance and brutal totalitarianism.”
      That same statement can be said about Christianity as well. So I would choose my words more carefully if you want to bash. Neither side was without bloody and violent faults. To think that Christianity was some sort of angel is demeaning to the millions of people that have suffered at their distorted hands. By attacking one side and neglecting the other, you are no better than your assumptions of Pagans: “foolishly deluded” in an “irrational belief”.

      • Dave Burke


        Actually, most Pagans don’t think that.

        I’ll settle for ‘many, if not most.’

        That same statement can be said about Christianity as well. Neither side was without bloody and violent faults.

        Absolutely true, albeit not to the same extent. The ideals of Christianity were beneficial to society in ways that the ideals of paganism were not.

        For example, pagan Romans happily committed infanticide without scruple and left plague victims to die without help, while Christians rejected infanticide and tended to plague victims of all kinds (whether Christian or not), often to their own detriment.

        Which position do you believe is preferable?

        To think that Christianity was some sort of angel

        That is not my position. The rest of your post is a straw man.

        • Anonymous

          I’ll settle for ‘many, if not most.’
          -I’d accept that. That you understand the point is more important though.

          Absolutely true, albeit not to the same extent. The ideals of Christianity were beneficial to society in ways that the ideals of paganism were not.
          -That can be argued considerably. Especially when looking at how people interpret the Bible and use it as a tool of power. The Crusades were horrendous. Nazi-ism was horrendous. Jamestown, witch-hunts, and persecutions were (and are still) horrendous and those were in the name of Christianity or inspired by it. Hitler wrote “I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord..” There are and were plenty of ideals within Christianity that were not beneficial to society. Even Jesus says in Matthew 10-34-36: “34Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.
          35For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.
          36And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.”

          Paganism, even broadly brushed as it is made out to be, doesn’t have a single book with which it tells it’s believers to act a certain way, so I would be interested in hearing how you would separate out Pagan ideals from the culture and how you would define them as non-beneficial. Am I on the same track you were going down (by your statement) if I give the example of the impressive distribution of roads, aqueducts, and architecture being beneficial to society, but being implemented by the Pagans of Rome?

          Which position do you believe is preferable?
          -Well, from the standpoint that plagues can decimate a population, the best thing to do would be to remove them from the populous. Our modern society would even implement quarantine if no medical expertise or vaccine could prevent or treat the incident. I’m not saying that Roman Pagans were perfect and infanticide is right, but I am saying that not all the populous of Rome was evil either. Just as Christian Rome did immensely hateful and harmful things, but I believe that not all Christian Romans were bloodthirsty either.

          That is not my position. The rest of your post is a straw man.
          -Your statements would make it seem that Paganism alone falls into your opinions and I am making the point that you can’t say something critically against (in these particular article’s arguments) Paganism without looking at Christianity in the same light. They both have had their share of good and evil affects, but to shine light on one’s evils and not look at the others when comparing them shows a very obvious slanted agenda.

    • Anonymous

      Now, Dave, that’s just snobbish.

      The largest sect of Christians in the US (I believe) is the Evangelical movement, which was formed as a split from the Fundamentalist movement in 1947, which in turn was built around extra-Blblical sources published around 1911. No “authentic” Christian from 1800, or 1700, or 1200, or 800, or 300 would have been able to make head or tail of them. Yet they claim to be the “truest” followers of Jesus, free of all that awful Catholic “idolatry.”

      Shall we say that “modern Christians foolishly deluded themselves into thinking that ancient Christians were just a slightly browner version of middle- and lower-class Americans with traditional suburban values?”

      I wouldn’t say that. It would be tacky. And snobbish.

    • Donna

      I am struck by the fact that this sentence: “In reality, as history confirms, they were a violent bunch of thugs whose xenophobia was exceeded only by their ideological intolerance and brutal totalitarianism.” can be applied equally well to some Christian sects today.

      Take the New Apostolic Reformation that is very active in current American politics, as the first example. They advocate spiritual warfare against non-christians (and have taken credit for people becoming ill or dieing, as well as natural disasters as proof that God is answering their prayers and spiritual warfare) and a literal takeover of all sectors of life by their followers. They have the ear (and possibly pocketbook?) of more than one politician in office today. What makes these guys especially dangerous is that they are a small group that has co-oped the religion that two thirds of Americans practice and corrupted it, yet their political influence is disproportionate to their numbers.

      We could also look at the Peruvian Mayor, who according to this article:, is reported to be an Evangelical Christian, and is under investigation for ordering the murders of 14 Shamans.

      I think the reality is that people in general tend to be violent, xenophobic, and intolerant. Most of us work hard today to overcome those tendencies, and call people out when they are not. If you look into the history of any people or culture you will find numerous examples of violence, intolerance, bigotry, and acts that are nothing short of horrific. There are no exceptions to this, there are no people who have always and in all ways been peaceful and tolerant.

      The thing is, the original article that caused so much feather ruffling was not “Lets remember the people who died as martyrs for our faith as we celebrate the birth of our Savior this holiday season”, it was “We win! Ancient pagans, modern pagans, religious pluralism all lose because December 25 is Jesus’ birthday, not Sol Invictus. So there.” The stereotyping of modern Pagans as a bunch of hippy-dippy loons who don’t know anything anyway that Mr. Bird indulged in in the comments also contributed to the general “we win and you can suck it” attitude. All of this would be only barely eye-roll worthy were it not published on a site that supposedly exists to promote interfaith understanding and balanced views on religion.

      I still stand by my original comment that Mr. Bird is picking an choosing his sources to tell the story he wants to hear and ignoring the most important lessons of history in the process. I’m not saying that first century Rome was a peaceful place or that the ancient Romans -Pagan or otherwise- were tolerant and open-minded, especially by modern standards. What I am saying (and I believe the sentiment has been echoed in other comments) is that Mr. Bird’s attitude of “we win, you lose” is inappropriate in modern society, especially in the forum he chooses to express it.

  • JE

    Michael, I agree with your analysis, but isn’t also true that majority religions tend to repress minority religions. I think modern societies to moderate this impulse.

  • Pot, meet kettle. You’re both black. Sorry.

  • William

    Kavin Rowe is not a historian, he is associate professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School. So he is far from an expert on ancient pagan religion. He studies it, as you, from a purely Christian standpoint. So your attempt at academic cred doesn’t impress. First, no one is saying that all Christians deserved what they got. No one is saying that there was no wrong done to any Christian. But the white washed version of history where all Christians were totally innocent and minding their own business when the Romans came out of nowhere and started persecuting them for s**ts and giggles is patently false. As to Druids and the Bacchic rites, those were both persecuted due to civic or political reasons. The Druids were political leaders among the Gauls and were fomenting rebellion against the Empire. I don’t think this justifies what the Romans did, but it is far from an example of persecution on religious grounds. The Bacchic rites were too wild for the Roman civic values, so their initial reaction was suppression. However, you forget to mention that the Bacchic rites were later allowed.

    “I have no interest in the contemporary expressions of paganism which I imagine to be radically different from ancient paganism.”

    Just because you imagine it doesn’t make it true. Yes, Wicca is not a point-by-point reconstruction of any ancient pagan tradition, however Wiccans still look back to their pagan ancestors and don’t take kindly to people slandering them. Secondly, there are pagan religions other than Wicca, some of which (reconstructionist) seek to revive the actual historical pagan religions of their ancestors. Yes, including the Religio Romana. So this dichotomy between ancient and modern paganism isn’t as clear-cut as you’re trying to make it. Many pagan traditions take historical pagan traditions as their antecedents. Not to mention that if you forebears hadn’t wiped out all other religions in Europe, some of us might not have to be reconstructing our native religions from fragmentary historical records. So yeah, thanks *so* much for that.

    • I can’t believe I am getting myself involved in a blog conversation like this, but I feel the need to defend my professor at least! It is true that Rowe is a professor of New Testament, but being an academic bible scholar requires training in the history and culture of the world in which the New Testament was written. This involves extensive knowledge of the history and literature of 2nd temple Judaism, Greco-roman politics, philosophy, religious beliefs, and ancient languages…I actually took a class with Rowe on Stoicism and the New Testament while at Duke. Also, the book cited in published by Oxford University Press which means two things: 1. that its expensive and 2. that is peer reviewed by the academic guild. Yes, he is a Christian, but also incredibly careful reader of ancient and modern texts and well qualified to speak on these matters. In reality, the stuff that Bird is talking about in this post is really stuff that you can’t have an argument about. Many of the comments show that people just aren’t getting the point. If one wants to believe that ancient roman society was a mostly peaceful tolerant society, you are pretty much ignoring what we know of it from ancient sources. Empires that conquer the know world aren’t really into the stuff that breeds tolerance. Of course, this doesn’t say anything about what to do with the wrongs done by Christians and Christian civilizations; however, it should give people who believe that pluralism is inherently more tolerant than monotheistic religion or that religious persecution is something Christians invented a little more soberness in their assessments. Basically, the conversation needs to be a bit better.

      • William

        Except that no one is claiming that the Roman Empire was “mostly peaceful and tolerant.” That is a straw man argument. But neither were they cardboard cut-out, black-and-white, Monstrous Hollywood bad guys. The fact is, by modern standards, no ancient civilization was what we consider peaceful and tolerant. But by modern standards, Roman paganism has a far better track record of allowing free practice of religion than Christianity does.

        Under Roman pagan power: Citizens were required to take part in the State cult but were otherwise allowed to practice any religion or cultus that didn’t disturb public order.

        Under Roman Christian power: Citizens were require to take part in the state cult of Christianity, but were NOT allowed to practice any other religion or cultus.

        As to Mr. Rowe, just because one has maneuvered through academia doesn’t mean they are infallible. And peer review isn’t infallible either. If everyone on the peer review board has the same biased view of history, then that peer reviewed book will be biased. However, that is all just conjecture. But here is something that isn’t conjecture: Augustus was a conservative religious reformer of the state cult. He wanted to restore the state cult to prominence, which would mean requiring all citizens to take part. Where Mr. Bird’s misunderstanding comes in is that he makes the Christian assumption that requiring participation in the state cult precludes participation in any other religion. That is the Christian view of religion, not the historical pagan view. The historical pagan view was that cults were not mutually exclusive. Therefore, assuming that the required participation and refusal to add foreign gods to the state cult somehow precludes the worship of those gods or participation in any other religion shows a marked Christian misunderstanding of historical pagan thought. If Professor Rowe’s book makes the same assumption, than he is guilty of the same Christian misunderstanding. This doesn’t mean he is a bad academician, just that his Christian worldview caused him to miss a particular point.

        • Ok, should have checked my wording a bit about what is being claimed for the Roman Empire.

          What you are disputing is not so much the history, but I guess its interpretation. The issue for you, if I am understanding, is what constitutes “tolerance.” Like your statement:

          “Where Mr. Bird’s misunderstanding comes in is that he makes the Christian assumption that requiring participation in the state cult precludes participation in any other religion.”

          So you are saying that Roman tolerance is that other religions can be practiced as long as they don’t interfere with one’s allegiance to the state. This view actually isn’t tolerant at all. In reality the state still has the authority to determine what can and can’t be practiced. And one’s religious beliefs cannot challenge its authority. This kind of pluralism doesn’t really work unless religious practices don’t actually mean anything.

          • William

            The state “tolerated” the practice of other religions and cults. They were not “tolerant” in the way we use the word today, but I would rather have been under pagan Rome’s version of tolerance than Christian Rome’s complete lack of it. Also, non-exclusivity does not make a religious practice “meaningless.” This is, again, a Christian view of what constitutes religion. Take this analogy: I am a fan of the Hamburg SV soccer club. I also like Arsenal. I don’t have to exclusively follow Hamburg in order for my fandom of them to have meaning for me.

            This is the exact attitude that caused the problem for Christians in the first place: the idea that only religions that claim one, absolute, exclusive truth are truly meaningful. This led them to be unable to compromise. It’s similar to the modern situation in US politics; one party refuses to budge or compromise and then acts like the victim when the other party goes ahead with their plans without them.

            Rome was not “right” in every part of their system. Marrying religion to the state is something I think we can all agree is incorrect. However, that doesn’t excuse the fact that it is Christianity’s inherent inability to tolerate the existence of other viewpoints that they were ultimately persecuted for. Once again, look at my example above, where under the Roman system things were not perfect, but a plethora of religions and cults existed compared to the post-Christian era when all other religions and cults were destroyed (including other forms of Christianity). I think it’s a situation where both sides were wrong, going by our own modern values. Therefore, to paint one side as wholly innocent and the other side as wholly guilty and evil is a personal bias with no basis in history.

          • You analogy breaks down a bit because, I hope, no one’s devotion to a sports team determines one’s way of the life the way Islam, Christianity, or Hinduism does for its followers. Although living in Boston and Durham, NC, I will say that devotion to the Red Sox and college basketball can get close.

            The contention that Christianity’s exclusivity is inherently intolerant may be true in some respects but, that does not mean its necessarily violently so. Traditions have resources for dealing with those in other traditions. The portrayal of Christianity as a relentless force of violence of persecution in the world is a pretty narrow view of the complexities of Christian history. The genetic attribution of the evils of the church to the seed of its convictions needs to be argued more rather than asserted the way it usually is.

            More importantly, I think the idea the we cannot have a true pluralism in which people really believe what they believe to the exclusion of others is wrong, and I am willing to say dangerous. This is essentially a secular western idea that has its own type of exclusivity. People in the rest of the world (like Islamic parts of the world) don’t look at religion that way and we need to find better ways of dealing with our differences.

          • William

            Perhaps that isn’t a good analogy, you’re right. My point is, one’s way of life does not need to be based on an exclusive ideology to be valid. Take an ancient German whose tribe becomes citizens of Rome. They continue their way of life, even being allowed to keep electing their tribal leaders, worshipping their gods, etc. yet they adopt some Roman gods (Silvanus seemed popular; Peter F. Dorcey, “The Cult of Silvanus: a Study of Roman Folk Religion”) and take part in the civic cult. They also feel no need to “convert” others to their way of life in order for their way of life to be valid. It is THEIR way of life, and others have their own way of life. Contrast this with Christianity.

            I do not think that the Roman system of pluralism was perfect. The problem was the idea of a need for a mandatory civic religion. I also do not think that pluralism precludes the existence of creedal, absolutist, exclusive religion. As long as such religions understand that they do not run the state or have the right to dictate rights and values to others. We have such a situation today. Many Christians have this understanding, and the problem is not with them; the problem is with the Christians who reject that understanding and the very existence of religious pluralism

            “The portrayal of Christianity as a relentless force of violence of persecution in the world is a pretty narrow view of the complexities of Christian history.”

            Regardless of complexities, the results speak for themselves. No native European religions were left fully intact after the 16th century (with the possible exceptions of the Mara and perhaps Saami and Lapps, but at that point even they have to live in a “Christian world” and adapt). That didn’t happen by handing out lollipops and free back rubs. There were instances where conversion was not done through violence, and there were many sincere converts; but you do not gain total hegemony in a region by being nice alone and we know for a fact that they didn’t. Christianity as a WHOLE may not have been a “relentless force of violence and persecution,” but there were enough Christians who used relentless violence, persecution, and political & economic coercion to convert everyone else that it’s sort of a moot point.

            “The genetic attribution of the evils of the church to the seed of its convictions needs to be argued more rather than asserted the way it usually is.”

            This is true, but I think it can be argued. The Bible may not teach to use violence to spread Christianity, but the ideals in the Bible such as “no one comes to my father but through me” can be a powerful emotional and psychological impetus to adopt a “by any means necessary” strategy for “saving people’s souls.”

            Who wants their friends, neighbors, etc. to go to Hell (whether that is viewed as a literal Hell or the absence of god is irrelevant)? The problem is that in reality one’s BELIEFS about the afterlife do not trump the results of their actions. Those women who drowned their kids because they BELIEVED they were going to heaven probably sincerely believed they were doing the right thing by getting their children out of an imperfect world and into a perfect heaven. However, the objective result is murdered children. The Jehovah’s Witness who interrupts my dinner to proselytize truly BELIEVES that they are doing me a kindness, but the objective result is them being obnoxious and annoying.

            My point is not that exclusive, absolutist beliefs inherently lead to bad actions. When a woman drowns her kids or a medieval king burns people alive, they are twisting those beliefs. However, I simply think it is easier to twist such an inherently intolerant belief into intolerant action. This is why we need a secular, non-theocratic government to protect the rights of everyone, *including* those who hold exclusive, absolutist beliefs; because, man, no one is harder on those types of religions than themselves.

          • Dave Burke


            I would rather have been under pagan Rome’s version of tolerance than Christian Rome’s complete lack of it.

            Apparently you’ve never heard of the Edict of Milan. Look it up some time.

      • Duncan B

        Well said Brian,
        You’ve accurately identified that, from an analysis of the historical material, the point of view that pagan or pluralistic societies are inherently more tolerant is found wanting.
        You’ve also noted that such an awareness doesn’t negate the soul searching required by Christians over the wrongs that have been done in the name of the One whom they claim to follow. As another commentator has said, it’s “also true that majority religions tend to repress minority religions”.
        Dr Bird has indicated elsewhere that he was speaking to Christians and so his original post was probably more biased and less nuanced than it would have been had he sought to engage with the merits or otherwise of other religions (in this case Paganism) and he has made it clear that he is not focused on modern pagans. I guess also our Australian sense of humour does not always stand us in good stead either if people read it negatively.
        So yes, I agree with you that the conversation could have been better.
        Finally however, I’d point out that part of the prompting for Dr Bird to write this second post is to counter the perspective of a writer who was re-interpreting history and who negated the sufferings and murder of early Christians and such a position is likely to be taken in an even more negative light when a person, such as Dr Bird, has had personal dealings with refugees who have suffered for their faith in this present time.

    • Dave Burke


      Yes, Wicca is not a point-by-point reconstruction of any ancient pagan tradition, however Wiccans still look back to their pagan ancestors and don’t take kindly to people slandering them.

      Firstly, since Wicca is nothing more than the invention of a bored 20th Century middle class Englishman, it does not have any ‘pagan ancestors.’ That term implies a degree of antiquity Wicca simply does not enjoy.

      Secondly, there has been no ‘slandering’ of your imaginary ‘pagan ancestors.’

      Many pagan traditions take historical pagan traditions as their antecedents.

      But on what basis? Simply because they appeal to you?

      Not to mention that if you forebears hadn’t wiped out all other religions in Europe, some of us might not have to be reconstructing our native religions from fragmentary historical records.

      Christianity did not wipe out all other religions in Europe, and you’re not the only people who have to reconstruct your religion from fragmentary historical records (Christians, Muslims and Jews do this as well).

      Ironically, most of the time you’re not actually reconstructing the original pagan religions but simply making up new ones to suit yourselves. As a firm believer in religious pluralism I have no objection to this – DIY spirituality is the new black, after all – but please don’t try to pretend it’s authentic paganism.

      • Anonymous

        Sorry to break the news to you, but EVERY religion is made up. The fact that Wicca was made up more recently than Xtianity does not mean one is any less valid a religion than the other. If you want to go that route, than an argument can be made that Earth-based Goddess religion predates everything else. Back when human beings had to live off the land, it was considered obvious that god was a woman… since men don’t give birth.

        The more I read these blogs by supposedly well-educated Xtians, the more disheartened I become by the deep lack of humility and respect expressed in their words. Xtianity has, unfortunately, become a modern day clone of what imperialist paganism was during the Roman Empire. Jesus would be ashamed by what has been done in his name over the last two millenia.

        I, for one, hope your religion dies a quick death and does not surviive for a third millenium.

        • Nemesis

          Rather than a slow, “We viking heathens are fierce warriors when we kill unarmed Christians, but when we meet actual armed Christians, we always get our asses kicked” kind of death?

          • Anonymous

            A) What does that have to do with anything?
            B) This is a historically inaccurate statement anyway.

      • William

        ” That term implies a degree of antiquity Wicca simply does not enjoy.

        Secondly, there has been no ‘slandering’ of your imaginary ‘pagan ancestors.'”

        First, I’m not Wiccan. Secondly, I’m pretty sure my physical, genetic ancestors who were originally pagan are not imaginary.

        “Ironically, most of the time you’re not actually reconstructing the original pagan religions but simply making up new ones to suit yourselves. As a firm believer in religious pluralism I have no objection to this – DIY spirituality is the new black, after all – but please don’t try to pretend it’s authentic paganism.”

        Most of the time? Really? Expert on modern paganism are you? There is more diversity in how closely pagan religions adhere to historical information than you realize. Some of them are making it up to varying degrees (which is fine), but others do everything they can to adhere to the historical versions of their religions. How exactly are religions like Romuva, Germanic Heathenry, and Hellenismos “simply making up new ones” when they base their practices on the historical information available? Are they EXACTLY the same as the historical religions, no, but neither is Christianity. Where exactly is the line where one can claim “antiquity”? Do Christians have to give up their property, stop having sex, and live ascetic lifestyles in waiting for the end of the world in order to be “authentic Christians”? Why is it that modern Christians do not have to justify their connection to ancient Christians, whom they barely resemble, but modern pagans do? Is it just because no one came along and interrupted the practice of Christianity over time? Seems like an unfair double-standard to me.

        “But on what basis? Simply because they appeal to you?”

        Why is that relevant? Do you ask Christians to justify why they are Christian?

        • Nemesis

          William, are you an avatar of Apuleuis Platonicus?

      • Cara

        Well, yes – many of are reviving the religion of our ancestors. There have been generations of careful research into the practices of our religion, and then we practice our religion as it may have been practiced if there had not been an 800 year (or so) interruption. We use the same simple altars in our homes. We offer the same prayers and songs that have been in use for thousands of years. We make many of the same offerings. We do have to work harder to overcome the Christian cultural mind frame that hamper us from achieving the same spiritual and cultural view as our ancestors, but with each generation we care getting closer and closer. Many of us are no longer converts, but were raised in the religion.

        We are sincere, devout, and dedicated to the religion we practice. It’s pathetic that the author, and you – Dave, feel so insecure or hateful that you try to lift yourself up by trying to step on others. Mockery is a sign of weakness, not strength.

  • Anonymous

    As a Pagan, your original post that started this was offensive. Just because my faith isn’t a major voting platform doesn’t mean that it is less deserving of it’s rights than a Christians. Just because it no longer is the majority, doesn’t mean that it has lost some made up religious war. My faith has nothing to do with that, and if that’s how you base the power of your own faith, then I feel sorry for you and for the Christ you worship.

    Regarding this post, I will admit that I stopped reading it after the first few paragraphs because this only seems to be an attempt to keep a centuries old “pissing contest” (pardon my language) as to who’s faith is better and who was suppressed more by the other side. In addition, you paint all Pagans with the same brush as if we all worship the same Gods and Goddesses and think that the Roman empire was the greatest thing on Earth. As a critical analyst, it is my job to look at things from as unbiased point of view as humanly possible, therefore, if you are going to point out the bad things ancient Pagan Rome did to Christians and others, you have to acknowledge the bad things Christians have done to Pagans, other faiths, as well as their own kind over the last 2000 years as well.

    Obviously both sides have their bad decision makers and slaughtering campaigns, but if you think on the keywords you chose to highlight from her post, Christianity was anarchic when it started becoming noticed by Romans. It was an entirely different view on the world that told people to focus heavily on the afterlife and not so much on the current one because the next life, through Jesus, would be wonderful–he promised that. That notion, at first, was anarchic. Much of very early Christianity was extremely unorganized, underground, and, before a collection of written documents were brought together to form the Bible, lacked order and law. Deriving from the concept of the next life being better than this life, it became acceptable to die for your faith. Martyrs were saints in the eyes of their people (and some became Saints in the faith) and Star’s text (from my interpretation) is stating that they were in no ways victims if they walked into the known violence of their own accord.

    I’m not saying that I completely agree with her statement, as I don’t believe that every person killed for their Christian faith would be called a martyr and that paints a broad brush stroke of it all, but I get the point. I will say though, that if that’s the only thing that you had a problem with, I, as an individual Pagan, am completely fine with that. If you choose to completely dodge the rest of her post discussing the struggle of not becoming angry at people who are bigoted to other’s, overcoming that anger to remain charitable, loving, and faithful without staining your faith with hatred, or actually walking the path of a minority and having to have disparaging posts like your original one shoved in one’s face in such a childish way. That you regard your faith with such un-Christ-like mind-frame can only be called astonishing. “So I say, bake that ham, roast that turkey, pour forth the wine, sing and make merry, cause Jesus just kicked the Roman gods and all the evil that they stood for in the testiculus – why not celebrate it!” How is that being Christ-like? What does that have anything to do with a Christian’s interpretation of the season? When did Christ ever feel the need to point his finger and say “neener neener neener” to those that he saw struggling even in the fringes of society?

  • William

    I also like how we’re accused of putting modern thoughts in the ancients’ heads, and yet you take things out of their historical context and apply modern ideas to them in order to prove your point. Not to mention relying on one translation as if it were infallibly accurate. Had you considered that in many of those cases the Romans were referring to their State Cult? They were very conservative about adding Gods or practices to the “official” state cult, and they required all citizens to at least nominally take part in it. Even Silvanus, a native Italic deity, did not have a temple in the pomerium of Rome. However, this official State Cult was not the only religious expression allowed. Roman citizens were free to practice or believe whatever else they wanted, evidenced by the widespread practice of the Cult of Isis & Serapis, Mithraism, etc. etc. as long as they did their “civic duty” and took part in the State Cult. Now is it right, in the modern day, to require people to take part in a civic religion? No, of course not. But we’re not talking about the modern day, we’re talking about ancient Roman times. And the Romans were no worse than any other culture or religion in those regards. Even Christianity itself took advantage of the idea of “civic religion” when Emperors became Christian. So I’m not asking you to bag on your Christian forebears and admit paganism is “better.” I’m just asking for you to be honest and quit acting like “your team” was perfect and blameless and “our team” were nothing but evil, murderous thugs.

    Also, I like how you disappeared from the comments in other blog posts just so you can hide behind your own little blog articles. F’in coward.

  • True American

    What the true issue here is the monstrosity of authoritarianism and absolute imperial power, as continued when Christianity became the official religion of the Empire:

  • Brian Rush

    Well, this is a serious distorting of history, as others seem to have pointed out. And that, I find, is a common and serious failing of Christians intent on pursuing the history of their faith. At least you recognize the corrupting impact on Christianity of the Council of Nicaea and of the Emperor Constantine’s co-opting (at the risk of using a modern term) the faith for his own political purposes, but I wonder if you have fully parsed the consequences of that co-option?

    But no matter. The main thing you have done here is to grossly exaggerate Roman hostility towards non-Roman (or non-Greco-Roman, I should say) religious practice. While the distinction between religio licita and religio illicita is real, almost all religions were legal. I know of only two exceptions, in fact: Christianity and the faith of the Druids. The latter was outlawed because the Romans saw it (with reason) as a hotbed of political dissent. Christianity was outlawed for much the same reason: Christians very often were troublemakers, intolerant of other religions, prone (among their extremists) to invade pagan temples and destroy property. Among the highly-diverse practices that called themselves Christian in the first-third centuries (prior to Constantine) were not only the type of worship that became the Imperial Church later on, but also anarchic, free-love, and radically anti-slavery Christian cults — and yes, today we are all anti-slavery, but at the time that was a radical and revolutionary proposition, comparable to someone today opposing “wage slavery” and calling for all property to be held in common (which some Christians also did, by the way).

    But despite this, despite the fact that the Romans had good reason to be suspicious of Christianity (or at least of some Christians), the laws against the religion were seldom enforced. Druidism was wiped out ruthlessly in all territories held by Rome, surviving only in Ireland and Scotland. But Christianity was persecuted only haphazardly and languidly. Perhaps Star Foster was a little off-base in calling early Christians “martyrdom-seekers,” but in another sense she was right about today’s Christians, who seem to suffer from a vicarious martyr complex and often seem to want to depict their spiritual ancestors as having survived with the whole world against them. But this is incorrect, and the best proof we have of that is that they DID survive. Yes, persecution of the earliest Jewish followers of Jesus the Nazarene by more orthodox Jews did occur — nevertheless, Peter, James, and their followers continued to practice in Jerusalem, so obviously there was no wholehearted attempt by Jewish conservatives to wipe out this heresy. Yes, on occasion an emperor would get a hair up his imperial ass to go after Christians. (The persecution of Nero almost certainly did not happen, incidentally. But there’s no doubt that the persecution of Diocletian did.) Nevertheless, Christianity survived, mostly right out in the open, and spread throughout the Roman Empire.

    The reality is that, while some Christians were certainly executed and otherwise persecuted by pagan Rome, the number of victims of this persecution is trivial compared to the number of Christians throughout the centuries who have been killed for religious reasons by CHRISTIAN authorities. It is the authoritarian Christian attempt to root out heretical versions of the faith that has accounted by far and away the majority of Christian casualties of persecution. (This figure also far outstrips the number of pagans ever murdered by Christians, I’ll add in passing. Christian persecutors are much more offended by heretics of their own faith, it seems, than by non-Christians.) Islam, not ancient paganism, comes closest to equaling the bloodthirstiness of Christianity itself in slaughtering Christians, but even Islam doesn’t come very close.

    The worst event in history, in terms of Christians suffering persecution for their faith, was the conversion of Constantine.

    And the reality, both ancient and modern, is that Christianity contains within itself the seeds of intolerance and persecution. These seeds do not sprout in all Christians by any means. But wherever Christianity has political power, those in whom the seeds do sprout tend to gain that power, and all religious freethinkers, including Christian ones, suffer in consequence. So long as Christians believe in Christian exclusive possession of the Truth, in Hell for unbelievers, and in a literal as opposed to metaphorical interpretation of such central aspects of the Christian mythos as the Incarnation and the Resurrection, those seeds will live, and we must all be very careful lest they sprout.

    • Mgodshall481

      Unlike the author of this blogpost you offer no evidence from primary sources to support your claims. Once you can do this, your theories will have a little more credibility.

      In fact, a brief glance at all the comments from ” pagans” reveals no citation from any Roman source (again, unlike Michael Bird). Please stop using ‘the Dan Brown historical method’ and actually offer some real evidence.

      • Anonymous

        Since when does the religion of Pat Robertson and Fred Phelps require ANY support from primary sources? Afterall, the only source that matters is what is in the bible, right? LOL

        • Mgodshall481

          Not sure what Pat Robertson has to do with this blogpost, but fair point. I’m simply observing that the “pagans” on this thread have not offered one quotation from an ancient Roman/pagan source to support their claims/theories. Note the stark contrast between their method and what Michael did in his original post. The latter actually provides us with evidence for the claims he makes.

          • Cara

            Why do you use ” ” around the word Pagan?

      • William

        Yeah, selectively pulling quotes out of context to support your claim, while ignoring all contradicting facts, is *totally* better than speaking from one’s knowledge without specific quotes. Here are some examples of where we’re getting our info from:

        Ramsay MacMullen (Emeritus Professor of history at Yale University): “Paganism and Christianity 100-425 C.E.” (a collection of various historical writings that corroborate much of what we’re saying); “Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries;” As well as many of his books, he’s a great historian of the period.

        Mary Beard (Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge): “Religons of Rome Volumes 1 and 2;” “Dictionary of Roman Religion”

        Jan Assman (professor of Egyptology at the University of Heidelberg from 1976 to 2003, and is now at the University of Konstanz): “The Price of Monotheism”

        In addition, I suggest the Roman historians themselves: Tacitus, Pliny, Suetonius. I’m not going to cherry pick quotes like Mr. Bird, do the research yourself and then come back and run your mouth.

        • Mgodshall481

          Again, the point is fairly straightforward. Offer some evidence and you will be taken a little more seriously. Come on, just give one quotation from Tacitus, Pliny, or Suetonius to help support your claim about paganism or at least show why Michael’s interpretation of Pliny is inaccurate or ” out of context”.

          • William

            I already pointed out failings in Mr. Bird’s quote. The letter to Augustus quote is used to imply that Augustus wanted to destroy and oppress all other religions than the Roman state cult. This is patently false, as a PLETHORA of evidence that many different non-State sanctioned cults and religions continued to existing during and long after Augustus’ reign. I don’t even know where to start pointing to evidence for that…I mean, take two minutes to read anything on the subject and you’ll see the same.

            Also, cherry picking some specific quotes does not make the nuanced case that our claims try to put forward. But whatever, here goes:

            Source: CIL 13.4208, from Wasserbillig, near Luxembourg. The inscription is broken on the right and conjecturally restored: “To the god Mercury and the goddess Rosmerta, Acceptus, imperial clerk and freedman of the empress,…” Inscription goes on to describe what he provided for the two deities’ cultus. You see Rosmerta, a Gallic deity, worshiped right beside Mercury, a deity of the Roman state cult, without any apparent attempts by the state to stop it.

            Source: IGR 3.1020, Greek letter of Antiochus taken from C. Bradford Welles, “Royal Correspondence in the Hellenistic Period”, no. 70 (New Haven, 1934): “The emperors Valerian, Gallienus, and Saloninus to Aurelius Marea and others: The ancient privileges bestowed by kings, confirmed through custom in aftertimes, the authority in the provinces will take care to preserve in safety for you, free from any adversary’s violence.” The letter writer is referring to the shrine of the Phoenician sky-god. You’ll notice that not only is the state paying to preserve the cult of this non-Roman deity, they promise to protect it from “adversaries.”

            Source: Pausanias, “Description of Greece,” 10.32.8f., trans. Peter Levi (Harmondsworth, Eng.; Penguin, 1971): The quote is pretty long, but it goes on to describe the festival of Isis, which went on without the Empire trying to repress it.

            Source: IG 2.1368, trans. Marcus N. Tod, Classical Quarterly (1932): 86ff. Describes the rule of the Athenian Association of Iobacchi (worshippers of Dionysus/Bacchus) from the 170s CE. Clearly the Bacchic cults were not extirpated by the Roman state, despite earlier sanctions.

            Source: Porphyry, De antro Nympharum 6, 24, in Arethus Monographs, vol. 1 (Buffalo, NY: State University of New York Press, 1969), anon. translation. “The Persians call the place a cave where they introduce an initiate into the mysteries, revealing to him the path by which souls descend and go back again” Porphyry, writing in the 3rd century, goes on to describe the cult of Mithras, without any reference to them practicing in secret nor any reference to the state trying to stomp them out.

            Source: Richard Walzer, “Galen on Jews and Christians” (London: Oxford University Press, 1949): Galen, a Greek physician during Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, mentions the Christian contempt for death as an every day thing: “…For their contempt for death (and of its sequel) is patent to us every day, and likewise their restraint in cohabitation…”

            I could go on and on…anyone else want to take over? Maybe point out some quotes from Christians where they admit to seeking martyrdom? As I know exist.

          • William

            Oh yeah, not to mention the multitudes of physical evidence of shrines, temples, inscriptions, etc. to non-Roman gods throughout the territory of the Roman republic and empire. To claim that Rome didn’t allow non-State cults is ridiculous.

          • mamiel

            Obelisks in honor of Isis still stand all over Rome and Pompeii.

          • Anonymous

            Also, great job. 🙂

          • Anonymous

            This roughly translates to “do the work for me.” Sad.

      • Anonymous

        Brian’s statement: “while some Christians were certainly executed and otherwise persecuted by pagan Rome, the number of victims of this persecution is trivial compared to the number of Christians throughout the centuries who have been killed for religious reasons by CHRISTIAN authorities……even Islam doesn’t come very close.”

        Can be verified in Foxes book of Martyrs** It turns out such terms as Christian, Church, Romanish, etc. had a much different definition in antiquity, than the average modern meaning.


        • Nemesis

          Foxes Book of Martyrs is considered a work of anti-Catholic propaganda. It verifies little but the anti-Catholic prejudice of its author.

          • Anonymous

            Hi Nemesis,
            The original work did sound that way, which is why I provided the link to the reasonably researched, verified historically accurate, updated version.
            BTW if You actually read that history, You find the Bible(scripture) itself was as much a target as the Reformers. Like it or not, the United States was founded by men who believed Foxes to be accurate history, whereby they included “freedom of religion, speech, and the press” in the bill of rights, to prevent it’s history being repeated.
            Can You provide verifiable documentation Foxes is in error? Was it only Jews, Muslims, and Pagans the crusades, and the inquisitions were set against? I am not proud of everything my ancestors did (English, Irish, French, and American Indian), but that doesn’t make the history propaganda.

    • William

      Great comment.

  • “Christians were anarchic and were deliberately looking to get themselves martyred? Okay, I’ll admit that there were a few (esp. in North Africa) who set out to become martyrs, but they were a very small number, and their quest for martyrdom was criticized by church leaders. But it was hardly typical of the majority of men, women, and children who were butchered for their Christian faith.”

    Actually, yes, they were. Go read God against the Gods by Jonathan Kirsch for some independent and thoughtful review of the situation. The rigorous and totalitarian beliefs that the Christians had edged their way into the world at the specific expense of all other beliefs. Rule 1 of the Ten Commandments was a war cry, not a suggestion.

  • “But it seems to me that these pagan folks just don’t have the foggiest clue about the Roman Empire and its socio-religious propaganda and apparatus. They are utterly ignorant of the persecution of Christians, especially under the Emperors Nero, Domitian, Decius, and Diocletian, and what brutal reprisals took place against Christianity. ”

    Yes, we do have a clue because some of us are living a modern day version of it. Do modern pagans deserve to be ridiculed and ostracized for refusing to be Christians? While Christianity is not the ‘state religion’ of the USA, there are vocal elements that wish to change this and vocal elements that continue to propagate the “US founded as a Christian Nation” theory.

    Collective religions have all been or will be persecuted for differences in faith and doctrine but pointing fingers or gloating achieves nothing.

  • Anonymous

    Mike: I think what sparked this whole bar-brawl was the theme of your first article, which implied that conquest is good. At least when it is a good thing (Christianity) defeating a bad thing (Roman Paganism). Yay team!

    That’s actually a rather frightening concept.

    Let’s roll the clock forward to the year 3000, when Scientific Secularism reigns and all religion is viewed as a quaint, backward affectation of the ignorant. It is no Utopia — it is the same world, with the same brutal politics, the poverty, the inequity, that we see today: it just takes place under a majority world-view called Reasonism. December 25 is now called Reason Day. Some historian named M-37 Bird has just written an article on the Triumph of Reasonism over that filthy Christian mess that screwed up history for the first two millennia of the Common Era. This historian completely ignores the fifteen nuclear skirmishes it used to exterminate Christians and heretical Reasonist sects hiding in remote areas. He ignores the injustices and inequities promulgated under the name of Reason. He simply crows about how Reason Day marks the Triumph of Reasonism over the brutal Christian cults.

    It’s quite arguable whether the conquest of Roman Paganism by Christianity was a good thing at all. It’s arguable that that’s even what happened: I’d make the alternate argument that Roman Imperialism seduced, corrupted, and conquered Christianity.

    • Nemesis

      Are you saying that you hold pagan Rome responsible (or partly responsible) for what you consider negative about Christianity?

      • Anonymous

        Imperial Rome, not “pagan” Rome. Power corrupts.

  • Anonymous

    I haven’t read the voluminous number of comments associated with your previous post. That said, I’d be surprised if any modern pagan spoke seriously about the tolerance of Roman paganism. Sure, the Romans did allow a certain amount of continuance of practice in conquered cultures… but it was also a brutal imperialist society and dealt quickly with perceived threats to its civilization. Pax Romana was definitely a peace imposed by force of arms.

    Transitioning to modern day America: I think there are very valid parallels to Imperialist Rome. Like it or not, Christianity is held in a place of high regard… as evidenced by the sole focus on Christian holidays. The Jews are grudgingly given time off for their high holy days. Grudgingly. Modern paganism is now on the rise as a religion, largely as a reaction to the intolerance being expressed for other religions on the part of the American Christian majority. The philosophy of love and tolerance advocated by Jesus has been consistently manipulated and twisted for the last two thousand years… largely by the Catholic church but more recently by Protestant Evangelicals.

    Most of the pagans I know want a society where religious pluralism is celebrated for its diversity, rather than being crushed beneath the Jack Boot of Christian intolerance. I would suggest that Christians get their house in order before attacking other religions. The title of the previous blog was deliberately inflammatory and the author knew very well that it had no place on Patheos. Might I suggest it be reposted to the home page of the Westboro Baptist Church? Afterall, it’s Fred Phelps that is the modern face of Christianity.

    • Nemesis

      The vast majority of Christians in the world do not know what is a Fred Phelps. There’s a whole world outside of America’s borders. He’s the modern face of Christianity only to those who deliberately seek a distorted view of modern Christianity.

      • Anonymous

        You’re quite right about Christianity throughout the rest of the world being different from what we have in the US.

        However, in the US you don’t have to “deliberately seek a distorted view of modern Christianity.” We have it shoved down our throats on a daily basis.

        We could start with the “religiosity” of the Republican Party. Is that even Christian? It claims to be.

        We can move to the media and the “culture wars” promulgated by (for instance) Fox News. Spin through the radio dial in your car anywhere between the Appalachians and the Santa Anas, and you’ll find lots of “jah EE zus” and rarely (if ever) a classical music station.

        Then there are the big-box churches — the Jeez-Marts — that mark the primary face of Christianity in many communities and dominate the local politics with right-wing issues.

        My wife is from Colombia, and the South America she remembers is almost completely Catholic. She has a completely different set of issues with Christianity. For her, a Fred Phelps is just a street-corner crazy — the real evils for her are institutional and deep and very old.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    Well, Your Majesty, you’re certainly continuing to earn the title you’ve been given–keep up the good Saturnalia work, King of Fools! Can you sustain it for the next two days, when our Saturnalia festivities end? How will you top yourself tomorrow? One can only imagine…Meanwhile, Saturn remains pleased, and wishes me to convey that he’d like to have you as entertainment at his next bacchanal–if you don’t have goat-skin leggings now, be sure to get fitted for them before the party, as it simply wouldn’t do for you NOT to have them.

    I do not deny anything that you’ve written here; nor, however, do I celebrate it. I do, however, celebrate the tolerance that the Divine Emperor Hadrian extended to the Christians, which even the best of the later Christian rulers–Roman or otherwise–of Europe never equalled in extending to people of any religion besides Christianity, including other forms of Christianity.

    Your previous post, and your follow-ups, have all been attempts to celebrate the supposed victory of your religion and your gods over all others. And yet, here we are, having this conversation, nearly two millennia on from the foundation of your religion, when people of your religion are still not the majority of the world’s population, and about two-thirds of the world’s population is (still, thankfully!) not enslaved to a conception of a deity that believes it is not merely the only one around, but the only valid way to be. Whatever the failures of pluralism have been in the past, the failures of pluralism right this moment are alive and well in your heart and words, and you should be very proud of yourself indeed for it.

    But then again, I suppose this is the version of your god Jesus that you like to follow: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34). Those of us who have tried to read good intentions and peaceful motives into people of your religion, apparently, are quite wrong, and you, as well as those martyrs who threw themselves at the Roman authorities knowing full well what they would suffer for it (whether their numbers were great or small), were simply “following their religion.” How unfortunate, not only for the people foolish enough to believe such things, but also for everyone else now who doesn’t and yet must still put up with conceptions of religion that base themselves on such premises.

    • William

      Glad you popped by, we need an expert.

      • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

        I’m hardly an expert, but you’re kind to say so…And, as nothing I’ve written thus far has been acknowledged by His Majesty Dr. Bird, it probably isn’t helping much. Oh well–one does what one is able, and that’s all one can do.

    • Dave Burke

      P. Sufenas Virius Lupus,

      and about two-thirds of the world’s population is (still, thankfully!) not enslaved to a conception of a deity that believes it is not merely the only one around, but the only valid way to be.

      This is not true. The two largest religions in the world are both monotheistic (Christianity & Islam) and their 3.8 billion adherents comprise roughly 57% of the world’s population.

      • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

        Oh, then I stand corrected once again. Math was never my best subject…

        So, more than half of the world’s population is enslaved to such a conception of a deity. (Luckily, many Muslims, including those in the most populous Muslim countries, don’t happen to know that their religion is that exclusive–and thus we can praise their pluralism, even if other Muslims who consider themselves “real Muslims” would not praise their adherence to Quranic writ.) I still don’t think that is a “victory,” by any stretch of the imagination, particularly since these oh-so-just religions have not done a great deal to solve the problems of the world in terms of poverty, hunger, and a great many other things that seem to be implied by the written ethics of their sacred scriptures. Simply saying “We have more people on our mailing list” does not make a religion right, nor its tangible effects worth celebrating.

        • Urban

          “Luckily, many Muslims, including those in the most populous Muslim countries, don’t happen to know that their religion is that exclusive–and thus we can praise their pluralism”

          This is supposed to be a joke, right? Wow you live in fantasy land, a comfortable, ungrateful, fantasy land. Go preach your god of pluralism in Saudi Arabia, better yet, go preach your god Hadrian in front of the Kaaba.

          • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

            Apparently, you didn’t read the rest of the sentence, did you?

            Have you met any Indonesian Muslims? Some of them are extremely pluralistic, they don’t seek to impose Islam on everyone on the planet, and they even practice elements of animism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions because they take their ancestral heritage seriously, and see no conflict with Islam in doing so. The Arabic Muslims in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, and so forth do not like this at all, and see these people as committing the sin of sherk, which is essentially syncretism. I’ve met many Muslims who weren’t from the Middle East who did not know much about what the Qu’ran actually says, who were just as pluralistic and accepting of other religions as the most pluralistic of polytheists. I saw one go to a Shinto shrine and participate in all of the rituals, including bowing before the kami! And, yes, the folks in Saudi Arabia would be outraged by that. But, guess what? The folks from Saudi Arabia weren’t there, and what they don’t know and didn’t see won’t hurt them.

            So, yes indeed, I can praise the pluralism of those Muslims, even if other Muslims might not do so. I cannot always say the same about many Christians, though there are some who are pluralistic as well–very few of them have been replying on this blog post, however.

            I would personally never set foot in a Muslim Middle Eastern country; and even if I did, I’d never be allowed close to Mecca, as no non-Muslims are allowed within many miles of the place. And, that’s fine with me–it would be both stupid and useless for me to even attempt going there for any reason whatsoever, and I’m happy for them to have all they want of that place.

            All of that being said, I will happily praise the gods of pluralism, and worship the Divine Hadrian, to my own heart’s content–and I am happy to do so in a country like the U.S., where that right is granted to me indisputably by the First Amendment, despite what some people who have replied on this blog post (including perhaps yourself) might think to the contrary.

          • I totally agree with you. Many of the fastest growing and/or high populated Christian practice syncretism. The number does look good but there are conflict with “Western” Christian denominations with this… many dislike the syncretism but they’re the same individuals that would boast about their numbers.

        • Anonymous

          If I am incorrect please tell me, but I believe the first line of the Koran is “there is no God but God”. I have never heard of a plurotheistic Muslim.

          • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

            No, that’s not quite right: the first line of the first surah of the Qu’ran usually reads something like “In the name of God, Most Gracious,
            Most Merciful”; it varies slightly based on which translation one consults. The first word is Bismillah, “in the name of Allah,” which you might recognize from Queen’s song “Bohemian Rhapsody”!

            You’re thinking of the so-called “First Pillar of Islam,” which is actually not in the Qu’ran at all; sentiments similar to it are, but the Five Pillars aren’t from the Qu’ran itself, they were formulated later.

            Muslim teaching agrees pretty universally that there is no other god but Allah (and, unless you’re a Muslim, there’s no reason to translate “Allah” as “God,” because it’s only a Muslim interpretation that Allah is the same as the Jewish and Christian gods–neither of those religions recognizes their god in the other religion’s gods, though Christianity also does say their god is the same as the Jewish god). There are not plurotheistic (and that’s a nice word! Thank you for using it/coming up with it!) Muslims to my knowledge, for the most part; but, some are syncretists, as I mentioned in another comment on this thread, in places like Indonesia and other countries, where they still take part in some traditional religious and cultural matters that predate the importation of Islam. Hard-line Muslims in their country, as well as elsewhere, would and do object to their doing this, but the people who do it see no harm in it. Lots of non-Middle Eastern Muslims don’t know what the Qu’ran says on many subjects, and thus aren’t really bothered about certain matters that might be considered sycnretistic. It is those Muslims who are often fairly pluralistic. And, as non-Middle Eastern Muslims account for 3/4 of the worldwide Muslim population, and only a fraction of them are as hard-line as the Middle Eastern ones, it’s fairly safe to say that the majority of Muslims are fairly pluralistic, and don’t bear people of other religions very much or any ill-will.

      • Anonymous

        But, Dave, Mr. Lupus wasn’t talking about Xtianity and Islam.

        What are the numbers specifically for Xtianity? I think they’d be closer to the 30% mark… consistent with Lupus’ original statement.

  • Sunweaver

    Ancient Paganism and Ancient Christianity both have their bloody histories, so I won’t belabor the point here. Here and now, however, we can either decide to beat our chests and claim victory or we can own the past and attempt to move forward with the goal of peace.
    I married a Catholic, my brother converted to Judaism, I’m a Hellenic Polytheist, and I have Muslim, protestant, Wiccan, and atheist friends. Needless to say, the holidays are complicated, but we can still manage to sit together and have a meal and a conversation without being jerks to one another. We even actively like each other. I understand the necessity of understanding the history of religion, warts and all, but to use that history as a weapon against your fellow modern person is deplorable. It’s prideful.
    As the book of the Christians says, “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” You need look no farther than the story of Ikaros for a Pagan illustration of the same idea. What’s ugly here is hatefulness and pride, not physical appearance.
    To that end, I’m not going to claim that my religion is better than anyone else’s. Instead, I’m going to make some latkes, plug in the Christmas tree, and wish you all a happy Solstice.

  • Religion does this. No surprise. Christianity has done it with surpassing vigor and laid waste to the natural world in the process. Christianity accomplished many things, but it is a spent force that in its decrepitude obstructs the way to God for all who subscribe to it. Christ himself is the destroyer of Christianity, and those who seek God in Spirit and Truth will seek God outside the depraved, man-mad structures that pass for the religion of Jesus. They are without exception the houses of Satan.

  • eric devries

    I’m pagan. My experience within my community is that most pagans understand that practitioners of our faith have commited atrocities and had atrocities commited against us. I don’t personally try to keep track of who murdered more of whom or care. We all have martyrs and to many of us it is a deeply meaningful part of our faith, knowing that those that came before us suffered depravities and death and that our faith endured. I practice a living, breathing faith that sustains and colours every aspect of my life and I love and adore Brigid and strive every day to be a better servant to her. I love my Christian friends and family and I have no investment in trying to change them. Most importantly, we are not enemies and no matter how many people on either side of this feel invested in being victims, or feeling persecuted or stirring up hatred I am not and never will be the enemy of another based on their faith. I would take a bullet to defend your right to practice your faith as a matter of fact, I doubt you would afford my faith the same consideration and I think that is the core of the anger towards you. You use language that shows contempt for that which others hold sacred and speak of them as if they were less than. When we devalue other groups we end up with the kind of things you were talking about in the post you just made. And isn’t this the time of year to be reaching out with love to others? That’s what my mom taught me, she’s Christian.
    Blessings to you and yours and Merry Christmas.

  • It is utterly fascinating that pagans would be apologists for the Roman Empire. I used to hang out with hippie kids who mostly just liked the idea of God being a woman, but celebrating patriarchal oppressive imperialism is something I’ve never been exposed to before. Why not just make up entirely new gods to worship?

  • kenneth

    Christians ARE “martyr hungry.” Not so much in the sense of ancient Christians actively seeking death, although there were those. They are martyr hungry in the sense that they have no identity or narrative apart from martyrdom. They have clung to their status as a suffering minority for 16 centuries after that stopped being true. Today’s Christians, or at least the “culture war” variety, are constantly spinning themselves as martyrs because of the sense of moral superiority that it confers and because Americans love to play the victim card. It also is a wonderful way of rallying their own to the cause. It is patently absurd, because Christians are nearly 80% of the population and control 99% of the highest political offices in the country, but they know the power of a big lie, repeated often enough.

    Why should Star Foster or any of us be held to answer for what Roman pagans did? We’ve never said they were faultless people, or even particularly nice. I do take issue to the idea that their violence was somehow inherent in their pagan beliefs. They didn’t kill Christians over their beliefs. Pagans in the ancient world and throughout history have never had a serious problems with heterodoxy. Pagans never had an institution like the Inquisition to ferret out “incorrect faith” through torture and execution.

    They killed Christians because they were an authoritarian regime and because Christians refused to show fealty to the power of the state, including its civic religion. The emperors didn’t care if Christians or anyone else truly believed it, or followed it in their private lives, but they demanded a nominal acknowledgement of loyalty now and then. That’s abhorrent to our modern beliefs in freedom of religion, of course, but that was the deal back then. They also saw Christians as a political threat because they created organizational structures and loyalties outside of the state. Creating large organizations that have a greater power to organize and inspire people than the regime in power is always dangerous.

    Apart from this flashpoint of political power, the Romans and pagans of the ancient world were infinitely more tolerant of other religions than Christians ever were. There was an enormous diversity of religions in pagan Rome. After Christianity took over, those were wiped out within a generation or two.

    The assertion that Christianity forged a tolerant society by vanquishing evil paganism is absurd on another count. Far more Christian martyrs went to their deaths at the hands of other Christians than from any Roman emperor. In the centuries around the Reformation, millions of Christians were killed over religious belief. A thousand years after the continent was “saved” from paganism, Europe was a slaughterhouse.

  • Luc

    The interfaith dialogue here is somewhat less than positive, don’t you think?

    Yes, the polytheistic Romans suppressed nascent Christianity and oppressed the adherents of it.

    Yes, the Roman Empire exploited and corrupted the young religion to become a political tool of the state.

    Yes Pagans were barbaric, territorial and violent.

    But, at the end of the day, they were all simply people who were doing what they believed to be the right thing.

    The key point is belief. Belief is what drove these people, and belief is what drives people today. This very forum for discussion is based on the notion that people hold belief as important.

    To answer the question “Did the Christians who suffered these fates deserve them for, well, refusing to be pagans?”

    No. They didn’t. But since when has being deserving had anything to do with anything?

    These events happened and, by happening, they shaped the evolution of the societies and religions involved.

    I believe that violence will continue between religions until people can accept the difference of personal beliefs. Not just between followers of different deities, but also between different followers of the same deities.

    No two people have the same god, after all.

  • If I might step back to the original post for a minute. Far afield have we wandered! Prof Bird’s point in the first post was to focus on the historical nature of Christianity (or should we say Christendom) “redeeming” a pagan holiday to make a Christian one. With historical reconstructions from a particular standpoint there will always be a bias. And Dr. Bird has shown us his. I really do appreciate his historical points … having read the sources myself I believe him to be accurate about the nature of Imperialism and Tolerance in the Roman Empire.

    My question is – do we as Christians need to be fighting this fight about Christmas?

    • Luc

      No, you don’t. You can turn the other cheek and ignore those who would decry your practices.

      Or, you could say that, yes, Christmas is an amalgamation of a collection of Pagan festivals around the solstice but it has been celebrated on this day for centuries now and, as the actual date of Jesus’ birth is unknown it would be futile to attempt to alter the day of celebration.

      At least, this way, we have the opportunity to celebrate together, rather than cluttering up the calender with a myriad similar festivals.

  • ECM

    How can anyone–claiming a keen grasp of history–cite the Crusades as Christians behaving badly??? Pro-tip: Muslim incursions into Europe were the impetus for the Crusades, i.e. affirmative self-defense against a faith determined to conquer all of Christendom at the point of a sword. To pretend otherwise is a gross distortion.

    Now I would of course accept that, the Crusades et al being a war, there were atrocities committed (it’s a war and that is part and parcel of warfare in any time, place or age), but what seems to me to be a blanket condemnation of the Crusades as unalloyed ‘evil’ or bad behavior on the part of Christians is to buy into massive, historical, revisionism of a noxious sort.

    (Note: I’m not a Christian (or Jew or Muslim or Pagan), but I am a student of history, and lumping the Crusades into the column of misdeeds perpetrated Christians is ridiculously simplistic and borderline ignorant.)

    • Anonymous

      I’ve always wondered why the Crusades get picked on, too. It was just a series of wars.

      Now the papal inquisitions — that’s a whole different kettle of fish. Particularly the first one, against the Albigensians.

  • “Note, I’m describing Roman paganism, not a bunch of new age Wiccans in Wisconsin.” Hahaha, that’s a funny line.

    • Anonymous

      There are Wiccans in Wisconsin,
      And Druids in Delaware;
      Some Heathens in the Hamptons —
      I saw them feasting there.

      The Shamans like Sheboygan,
      The Gnostics like Gnew York.
      But Pagans prefer Pasadena,
      And picnicking in the park.

  • Daffy Duck

    What has any of that got to do with living with Real Sane Intelligence in the globalized quantum world of 2011 when everything is now instantaneously inter-connected?

    Of course the Christians have inevitably been slaughtering the “pagans” (that is everyone who is not a Christian) ever since – under the aegis and imperative of Constantine’s Sword

  • Anonymous

    Well I, for one, have completely lost track of this thread. Let’s see…

    We started with an article on the “triumph” of Christmas over Roman Paganism. A few Pagans took umbrage, and were treated to what many considered to be snide or even religiously bigoted “humor.” Dr. Bird has offered a half-apology based on the fact that he is “Australian.” This seems to have been half-accepted by the offended American Pagans (I’m certain the deal could be closed if Dr. Bird agreed to eat a bug), though I suspect the Australian Pagans have not yet weighed in (they might require that he also wrestle a croc.) The thread has now descended into an historians’ bar-fight in which primary source documents have been broken across the bar and the brawlers threaten each other with the fragments as they taunt each other with deeply wounding insults on the order of “You don’t know Koine from Greek.”


    I’d like to go back to the original article, and ask Dr. Bird a question.

    This whole thing went awry, IMO, around the idea that conquest is a good thing. That strikes me as being a very Imperial concept. It isn’t restricted to the Romans, of course. It goes back a very long way. But it strikes me as ironic, on the same order as that anti-evolution bumper sticker that shows a big “TRUTH” fish eating a little “darwin” fish. (If you don’t see the irony in that, then spend some time thinking about it.)

    The question is this: exactly what are you celebrating, Dr. Bird? I think we can agree that the Romans were brutal — crucifixion is a nasty way to go. I think we can also agree that Christians were brutal — being pressed to death by stones is a nasty way to go. People are awful to each other. The state was cruel in the first century. The state was cruel in the tenth century. The state is still cruel. Because people are cruel.

    So what was the big advantage you think Christianity brought to the world, that was so much better than what stood before that it was worth stamping out what came before and celebrating — now — the “victory?”

    This isn’t a question of historical footnotery. This is a basic question of value. And I am truly curious.

  • Anonymous

    “But you pagans out there need to face up to the fact that pagan religion was an instrument of oppression and violence against Jews and Christians in antiquity! It’s part of your heritage, you don’t have to like it…”

    Amazingly literate, but your point was utterly killed by your closing statements.

    These days “paganism” is a blanket term to describe practically any religion that isn’t one of the big mainstreams, or, in the case of some Christians, anything not of their faith. This is like describing every dark skinned person as “black;” not only is it WILDLY inaccurate, it does many an injustice while painting a short-sighted view of the world.

    Rome held and enforced the mainstream religion of the time, true, but it was also only ONE possible religious path. Had it not been, all those warnings you listed against other religions wouldn’t have existed. And yes, there were FAR more religions, even in Roman times, than just Christianity, Judaism, and the mainstream faith of Rome.

    There are very specific ways to follow the faith of Rome–rituals that must be performed, holidays observed, specific spiritual beliefs held, and gods to bow to. And yes, there are SOME who may fall under today’s modern blanket label of “Pagan” who may need to deal with the fact that absolute power once corrupted their religious ancestors absolutely (as, in all fairness, it seems to be doing to many branches of Christian faith in our modern era–power is divorced from true spiritual belief).

    But many more DO NOT follow the Roman faith. I’d hazard a wager that it was a large majority, in fact. So your blanket “shame shame” rebuttal to pagans far and wide about the terrible, terrible sins of their ancestors for using people from alternate faiths as night lights and kitty food is the sort of ill informed blame-laying smear tactic I’d expect from our modern GOP, but NOT from men of true spiritual faith.

    As you said yourself, the problem then was that there were two acknowledged religions, the Roman faith…and everybody else. The blanket blame you lay on other faiths shows a disturbingly similar line of thinking–there is your variations of the Christian faith…and everybody else. And those people are obviously so far beneath your notice, you don’t even bother to distinguish the very real differences among them.

    How different you are from YOUR Roman ancestors, then, the ones who embraced and reconfigured everything Christianity was into their own unique image. I see absolutely no proof of their mindset in your victory cries (“Christianity beats Paganism!”) or in such amazing proof of your respect and acceptance of those from other faiths that you’ve taken the time to learn and understand their paths and the people who follow them, instead of reducing them to a faceless, sin-infested, troublesome “other.” Yes, no echoes of the Roman thought process here.

    Or maybe, before you go throwing about accusations, you should take a deep breath, calm down, and follow the advice of one of your own great spiritual leaders; “Let he who is without sin….”

    Seriously, if nothing else, you know as a learned man that you never trust a lecturer who gets the facts wrong. You are lecturing here, and you got some of your facts wrong. Not to mention the tone of your final argument (as well as the overall tone of your previous article) was very…Roman. So why should I trust you?

    And the really sad thing? I started out this post agreeing with you. You lost me because it was more important to you to end this by playing the blame game. Shoddy work, Mr. Historian.

  • I might direct readers to a rather well-researched and documented article that presents a rather different view of history than does Mr. Bird. Apparently where you stand depends on where you sit.

    • Anonymous

      But… but… how can Mr. Bird be wrong? Afterall, he uses ‘primary sources’!!!

    • Anonymous

      Makarios, thanks for that link by Haraldsson. It is indeed a well-researched piece. It’s shocking how similar the mutated children of Abraham (Xtianity and Islam) are in their behavior towards cultures of which they disapprove. I have a strong appreciation for modern Judaism, but I think that it is high time these other two branches were permanently removed from human cultures.

  • Donna

    That’s a very long-winded, if thorough, answer to but one criticism of your original article.

    If it will allow the conversation to move forward, I’ll take your three very impressive sources quoted in the above article at face value, and assume that you are very Scholarly and Important. I’ll even refrain from doing any quick googling to find sources to counter your sources, or find examples of modern Christians acting badly in the last 20 or 200 years to trump your examples of pagans acting badly 2000 years ago. Here’s your gold star.

    Moving on.

    In your original article you made these statements:

    1) “Second, note also the forthright desire of some European intellectuals to return western civilization back to a pagan pluralism as if paganism will lead to a more open minded and tolerant society (see Alain de Benoist’s On Being a Pagan). …Bad news for neo-pagans like de Benoist, as long as “Hark the Herald Angels” and “O Holy Night” are songs people hear, sing, and enjoy at Christmas, they don’t stand a chance in hell.”

    2)“Oh, FYI, we just stole your holiday and crowned Jesus as King of kings on top of a city with seven hills, sitting on a big bad ass throne using Jupiter, Sol Victus, and Caesar as a foot rest. Hope that’s okay, if not, too flipping bad.”

    3) Christmas means the victory of God over the inhumanity and irreligion of paganism. So I say, bake that ham, roast that turkey, pour forth the wine, sing and make merry, cause Jesus just kicked the Roman gods and all the evil that they stood for in the testiculus – why not celebrate it!

    These statements were not made to ancient Romans. They were not made to honor the people who were martyred in the first century for their beliefs. These statements were not made on a Christian website designed to address only Christians. You said these things to people who today worship the Gods of Pagan Rome, to people work to achieve a pluralistic society. You said these things on a website that exists to promote better understanding of all religions.

    I think you are missing the point. Christianity didn’t win some pissing contest because December 25 is currently well known as the Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus. I find it ironic that you would say “…some of the third century emperors like Aurelian and Decian who persecuted Christians were devoted to Sol Invictus. Decian wanted to unify the Empire around the worship of Sol Invictus, and thus sought to purify the Empire of Christians.” and ““Oh, FYI, we just stole your holiday and crowned Jesus as King of kings on top of a city with seven hills, sitting on a big bad ass throne using Jupiter, Sol Victus, and Caesar as a foot rest. Hope that’s okay, if not, too flipping bad.”” in the same article to make your point. Patheos is run by the “intellectuals [who wish] to return western civilization back to a pagan pluralism”, if you are using “pagan” in the lower case “p” sense that means non-Abrahamic religions, as I believe you were.

    It is your self-congratulatory attitude and your apparent bigotry that are wholly inappropriate, both because this place is specifically set aside to give all religions voice, and because standing up and saying “nah-nah nah boo-boo stick your religion in doo-doo” makes you an asshat.

    It’s not about who behaved badly way back when. People are giving you a hard time because you are behaving badly now.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Just to clarify, since you make a claim here about what Patheos intends. Patheos as a company takes no position on the truth value of any or all religions. So Patheos per se does not seek to return western civilization back to a [small-p] pagan pluralism. Patheos tries to create a better conversation on religion — a more informed, more charitable conversation. Sometimes that works out, sometimes it doesn’t. But Patheos is neither evangelistic nor relativistic since it takes no position on that — but it’s a rich marketplace of religious ideas and there are many within the marketplace that would be evangelistic, and many others that would be relativistic. Hopefully, over the long term, we come to understand one another better.

      The truth is, I know that feelings are inflamed on this post and the series of posts on this issue, here and elsewhere, but I do think that there has been some light and not just heat.

  • mamiel

    “In order to protect the purity of its own religious traditions, the Romans routinely expelled foreigners from Egypt, Judea, and the East.”

    This is a false statement and I’m pretty sure you know it. Their motives were never to protect “religious purity”. Roman was an imperial power and sought to protect power. Period.

    The Romans were chauvinists who believed that what is Roman is superior to what is foreign. But they had grudging respect for what was old and had years of tradition behind it. Therefore they had respect for Judaism and NOT for the cult of Christianity. Romans even persecuted various “new” pagan cults that they felt to be a threat to the state, in the very same way they persecuted Christians. They didn’t care for groups that met in secret and taught creeds that encouraged challenge to Roman rule and authority. Unlike Christians they were never interested in what some one “believed”. Declarations of faith are important only to Christians.

    Please read about pagan Emperor Julian’s relationship with the Jews.One of Julian’s major complaints against Christianity was that it was apostacy against Judaism. Judaism is very clear about it’s position on human sacrifice (it’s against). Therefore the human sacrifice Jesus’ death represents an abomination of sorts. Julian even tried to rebuild the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and was likely sabotaged by, you got it, Christians.

    All of this is explained in this book by a PhD professor in Christianity. It’s called “Christians as the Romans Saw them”.

  • Betoquintas

    I beg your pardon, but you aren’t a historian, you are a theologist, a far beyond chair in achademy. If you were historian, you would know that in pagan times, in roman empire, was much more freedom and tolerance of religion than in 19 centuries of christdom. if you were historian, you should know that this “persecution” of christians happens specially because christians refuses to accept this kind of living and refuses to worship Caesar, a treachery act that in a militar government is punished with death. christian goes to face public execution because they refuses to live in community, just like today, when christians refuses to accept that their religion doesn’t “won over paganism”, after all, your religion owns much to paganism, neoplatonism and folcklore, without speaking all aspects of divine king slaughted and ressurected mythos from where Christ unshameful copied. with proper analysis, the numbers of christians who suffered persecution and execution was way far less than all pagans, heretics and witches [and many others innocents] whose suffered persecution and execution from this “religion of love”.

  • To put what others have already said in simpler terms, the actions of the father are not to be blamed on the son. The son is not the one who committed it.

  • So, since most Pagans don’t practice Religio Romana, how is your point valid at all? If Christianity conquered Paganism, then how is it that pantheistic and polytheistic religions not only abound, but thrive, all over the world? The various Hindu traditions, for example, have shown a remarkable tendency to survive incursions from countless missionaries. Shinto is still the primary religion of Japan. Tibetan Buddhism, essentially polytheist, is practiced by a great many people.

    If Jesus is such an irresistible character, then why do so many resist him? (Of course, you can argue predestination if you like; good luck with that.) And importantly, why are so many walking away from Christianity in the Western world, and seeking a path away from the heresy of evangelical fundamentalism that has infested Christianity like a virus?

    It is one thing to talk about the Romans as an example of a society that eventually assimilated Christianity to such an extent that the empire adopted Christianity as a state religion. This counts as an example of how religions overtake, conflict, and replace each other depending on their relevance to time, place, and changing societal mores. It’s another to claim that this “triumph” proves conclusively, worldwide and for all time, the innate superiority of Christianity as a religion and way of life. Yet Christianity has failed many people; church attendance in Europe and the UK is dropping precipitously and, according to many surveys, the numbers of people claiming agnosticism, atheism or skepticism about the universal applicability of Christianity rising.

    The past is the past. That which is Divine acts in the here-and-now. If Christianity is failing – and it is – and its adherents believe they can save it by becoming glorified car salesmen, TV pitchmen, hustlers, bullies and hucksters – the religion is by no means triumphant, but rather intellectually and morally bankrupt. Christianity may have been noble once. It is not noble now. We know that there was no historical Jesus, and no one with a decent education believes in the infallibility of religious leaders or the inerrancy of the Bible.

    Christians live in the old aeon, worshiping the triumphs of their past and trying to honor Spirit with bloated megachurches and ever more tasteless and crass spectacles. Christianity may have been something like triumphant, a long time ago, in a part of the world that no longer exists. But the time of Christianity is ending. Articles like this only prove it to be so.

  • WhiteBirch

    I’m not in love with the way you infantilize Star with your language rather than treating her as an equal and a colleague. Even if I wasn’t ideologically already on her side, I’d be on her side because she’s trying to talk and you’re only talking down.

  • Scary stuff. Wouldn’t it be nice to believe, as human beings, we could have moved past “us” and “them” attitudes by now? But, at least we’ve managed to separate church and state in USA. Situations like this are, honestly, beyond belief.

  • Rommy Driks

    How’s this for an answer: The term Pagan is huge umbrella term, so actually what the Romans did is really not part of my legacy (neither are the Egyptians if you wanted to try talking about the book of Exodus). But thanks for playing XD

  • This was an interesting article and I learned a lot. Unfortunately I can’t get the bad taste of your condescension out of my mouth. How ironic that the title is The Myth of Tolerant Paganism, considering you’re clearly not tolerant of differing points of view yourself. In the end, I think you fail to realize that people are not going to think about the Roman pagans when you write that Dec 25th Means Triumph Over Paganism (which as a pagan I actually agree with). It’s unfortunate that your academic knowledge overides your common sense. It’s also silly of you to think that as pagans we would be willing to celebrate this idea. The fact that you things like “new age Wiccans in Wisconsin” shows your blatant ingnorance of what Wicca really is.

  • Why yes the only pagans were the ones in the Roman Empire, never mind that you have the Germans and Celts who were pagans a Hel of alot longer than the Romans were. You’re a historian? You could have fooled me.

  • Diver573

    It’s an interesting narrative that’s been built up here. Effectively using cherry picked data and the ‘texas sharpshooter’ concept for logical fallacy. You patently ignore or intentionally misinterpret Roman policies, and exaggerate others in support of the Christian narrative that they were unfairly prosecuted by ancient pagans. The paternalistic, and quite frankly condescending tone is a nice touch too, although it borders on trolling. Speaking of which, many of the responses to comments hold the same barely concealed contempt, which borders on being unprofessional in that it’s a vulgar display of the biases held that helped shape this article.

    However, this carefully fabricated narrative has started to come apart under the scrutiny of a slightly less biased academic world that no longer accepts the narrative as being truthful or accurate. Academics like Candida Moss are at the forefront of this. The picture emerging is one of haphazard persecution (at best), occasionally punctuated by short periods of extreme measures. This gradual reexamination is occuring concurrent to a reexamination of Carthage (who suffered greatly at the hands of Roman propagandists and narrative builders), and of the ancient Hebrews (no archaeological support for mass enslavement in Egypt). Essentially, modern academics are parsing out real historical events and realities from time honoured narratives. And this, combined with the growth of neopaganism as a viable community and religious practices infuriates many Christians who see it, often wrongly, as regression. However, that concept is pegged to the idea of linear social development, an idea discarded by serious academics.

    A better decsription of pagan tolerance in the ancient world would be that ‘they were tolerant if you weren’t an arsehole’. Ancient Christians did not have a good reputation. They were regarded as troublemakers, not just because they opposed the other religions of the era, but also because they were violent, ill-educated rabble frequently used by their leaders to attack non-Christian temples, shrines, and people. The murder of Hypatia of Alexandria is aa excellent example.The atrocities committed by Christians from the time of Theodosius to the fall of the Western Roman Empire made anything committed against Christians pale by comparison.

    While many neopagans do have a lamentably ‘whitewashed’ view of the ancient world, it is a view with accurate historical roots in the known actions of classical pagans. Modern distortions aside, classical pagans in europe, the near-east, and the middle-east were largely tolerant of other religions. Provided that you weren’t actively evangelizing or proselytizing, or trying to force your culture on them; which is exactly what Christianity did and continues to do. The Christian narrative is one of martyrdom, sacrifice, and unending persecution; to the point that many modern christians of all stripes still see themselves as un unfairly persecuted minority(!), and continue to try to force their narratives and world views as absolute truth.

    So, to conclude, classical pagans were, in general, a tolerant group, with numerous caveats, after all, the ancient world was not one of the strange, blind tolerance frequently demanded today. The post above is misleading, and intentionally combative in tone, and subject just as many, if not biases than than the author ascribes to the neopagan community that is so subtly vilifies.