Did Oathbreaking Lead To The Dark Ages?

Did Oathbreaking Lead To The Dark Ages? May 23, 2010

History is written by the victors. This we all know well, yet there is a portion of our history that I don’t hear Pagans talk about a lot. The fall of the Roman Empire is generally seen as a failure of Paganism and Pagan culture. The “fact” of Paganism collapsing under it’s own decadence has been repeated so often that it would be surprising to hear it contradicted. Yet if you put on your “Pagan glasses” and look at the situation from a religious perspective, it actually appears to be a pretty clear example of what happens when sacred oaths are broken.

Today most Pagans, who aren’t active in Nova Roma, tend to focus on the cult and home worship of the ancient Romans, but the State cult was an integral part of Roman life. In fact, neglect of the State cult was ruinous both personally and nationally. Every citizen was required to make sacrifice to the State cult. The only exceptions were the Jews, who were allowed to make a sacrifice to their God on behalf of the State and their temples were recognized as part of the legitimate college of religious cults. A breakdown in communication occurred when the Christians refused to make the civic sacrifice yet insisted they weren’t Jews, who were the only group exempt. Aside from the madness of Nero, the persecution of Christians under Pagan Rome was originally due to this “atheism” that the Pagans found abhorrent, not the Christian religion itself. To deny the State cult it’s civic sacrifice was tantamount to refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance today.

The civic sacrifice was important because the Roman government had contracts with the Gods of Rome. That’s right, the State government was oathbound to uphold certain religious rites in return for the protection and favor of the Gods of Rome. Any citizen refusing to do their civic duty was essentially breaking the contract the Romans had made with their Gods. This was not dealt with lightly, as the safety and prosperity of Rome was at stake.

Another affront to the State religion was the introduction of the divinity of the Emperor. The Republic was under the protection of and favored by the numinous Gods of Rome and Italy: Jupiter, Juno, Quirinus, Bona Dea, Mars, Magna Mater, Hercules and Minerva. Rome herself was deified, and her sacred name forbidden to be spoken aloud outside the rites. From Julius Caesar onward the cult of the Emperor became the most important aspect of State religion, usurping the prominence of Jupiter and Quirinus. Living men were given precedence in the State cult over the numinous Gods that had nurtured Rome for centuries.

From Commodus onward, Rome withered. The State cult lost it’s importance gradually. As the government grew unwieldy and the power structure more complex the Romans looked for something new rather than re-establishing ties with the Gods that had governed their Republic’s ascension in the world. While once all cults that kept the mos maiorum were welcome, Rome dissolved into divisiveness. The Christians argued amongst themselves, railed against the other cults and the Roman government found them harder to put down than the Bacchic revels that of yore endangered Rome’s streets.

Constantine issued an edict of toleration in hopes of quelling the religious furor but in vain. Julian attempted to restore all the temples to their former glory, including plans to rebuild Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, but he died on a foolhardy mission against the Persians. Soon after his death the statue of Victoria was removed from the Senate, the Vestal Virgins were disbanded and Rome fell into darkness.

What does this have to do with us? Modern Pagans? Well we are often at odds over the issue of being oathbound. Some feel it is an unnecessary “cloak and dagger” element of modern Paganism, particularly as practiced by trad craft.  Often we don’t see the benefits of being oathbound. It’s seen as a restriction on our personal liberty.

Yet if we view the decline of the Roman Republic and Empire as an oathbreaking, a breaking of the contracts and agreements made with the Gods that facilitated Rome’s rise, we are automatically struck by the benefits and consequences of being bound to a God. Rome prospered when their Gods prospered and faltered when the Roman Gods were neglected.

Think on that. It’s a huge concept that applies to our everyday practice. While we value mirth as much as reverence, it’s not a game we are playing. We are interacting with real Gods and have real religious obligations. Whether you contract with Quirinus, make an oath upon Thor’s hammer or accept a geasa from Lugh, you are making decisions regarding your future and such decisions are not to be made lightly.

Rome aligned itself with new Gods, the Trinity of the Christian church, and it took centuries to return to it’s former glory, for it’s new contract with Christ to mature. If you break your oath to one thing and align yourself with another, how long will your Dark Ages be? Will the Darkness be worth the steep climb back towards the light?

Ten years ago, I broke my oath to the Christian Trinity, and spent years wandering in the desert, searching for my Pagan voice. While I wouldn’t give nothing for my journey now, would I have chosen this path had I known? I don’t know, but I know the oaths I hold now are steadfast and pure. None shall convince me to turn against the Gods of my well-being, to break my sacred oaths.

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  • Frank Knuppel

    “The fall of the Roman Empire is generally seen as a failure of Paganism and Pagan culture. The “fact” of Paganism collapsing under it’s own decadence has been repeated so often that it would be surprising to hear it contradicted. ”

    Completely incorrect. Gibbon et. al. posited Christianity as one of the principle causes of what he characterized as the “Fall” of the Roman Empire. Modern Historian’s now question the entire idea of the “Fall” given that the Eastern Half of the Empire survived intact into the fifteenth Century, among other things.

    Christianity got the sharp end of the stick from Gibbon, thanks to his Enlightenment-driven prejudice against it. Gibbon’s narrative, that Christianity fatally weakened Rome’s martial spirit, persisted for more than a century.

  • Right, I wasn’t speaking of how academics view it, but of the view of Rome’s demise in popular imagination. I grew up on Quo Vadis, The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur. Hollywood presented ancient Pagans as unbelievably decadent and immoral. Even Bewitched presented Witches as decadent and immoral, with homemaker Samantha as a heroic heretic.

    I think one of the biggest problems in discussions of Paganism right now is the gulf between the academic view and the “pedestrian” view.

  • Frank Knuppel

    Gotcha. Yes there is a disconnect between Historians and the public.

    As for me, I’m certainly not pro-pagan but I don’t perceive paganism as a cause of Rome’s downfall.

  • Right.

    There were a lot of factors. I was looking at it from a Pagan religious viewpoint, but it’s obviously only one view among many. :)

  • Excellent article, truly excellent article.