The Perils of Pagan Society

Posted by Solange Hertz on

The Perils of Pagan Society

What was pagan society really like? And does our society embody the same principles today?


This excerpt is taken from a chapter in Apostasy in America by Solange Hertz.

A brief but significant preview of the ultimate pagan revival occurred in the fourth century when the Emperor Julian the Apostate, grandson of Constantine the Great, rose to power at the height of the Arian heresy. Convinced that he was under the direct guidance of the gods to restore the Roman Empire to the religious traditions of its fathers, he claimed to have received a divine mandate to that effect from the sun-god Mithra, into whose gnostic mysteries he had been initiated while he was governor of Gaul, and to whom he had consecrated himself as a spiritual soldier. The surprising support he elicited from pagan quarters led many Catholics to believe that the end times were already upon them.

Although he grew up under his predecessor the Emperor Constantius who, like most of his teachers and probably his mother, was an Arian, he had been only too well educated in the faith, and his was no mean intellect. St. Cyril of Jerusalem considered Julian an especially formidable adversary, not so much because he was “naturally gifted in rhetoric,” but because:

...before he became Emperor he was numbered among the believers. He was worthy of Holy Baptism and trained in the Scriptures ... Even those who are strong in faith are troubled because they thought he knew the Holy Scriptures. He heaped up many testimonies from them ... although he did not understand what they meant.

His Contra Galileos, in which he contemptuously portrayed Christians as a Galilean sect which had apostasized from Judaism, was penned in the tradition of the neoplatonic philosophers Celsus and Porphyry whose systematic argumentation against the Faith commanded so much attention on the part of Origen, St. Jerome, St. Augustine and other Fathers of the Church. Their works and Julian’s proved so dangerous to men’s minds that eventually the Emperor Theodosius ordered them burned wholesale, so that today they survive only as fragments quoted by Christian apologists.

After a brief but energetic reign of only one year and eight months Julian providentially met his death at the age of thirty-two in a campaign he was waging against the Persians, but just as providentially, he retained his place in history as a portent of things to come. He began restoring the cults of the ancient gods by undertaking a massive reform of the pagan priesthood and reviving the old liturgy in all its erstwhile splendor. Taking an active part in the public ceremonies, he was known to sacrifice a hundred bulls at a time, leaving people to wonder whether there would be enough animals in the whole empire to satisfy his zeal. He soon realized, however, that such measures would not suffice of themselves to uproot Christianity, which after nearly four hundred years had more than carved a place for itself in the general culture.

An astute politician, he guaranteed freedom of conscience for all, advising Christians and other factions to compose their differences and live peaceably together, although according to Ammianus Marcellinus, he did so only:

...in order that he might have no fear thereafter of a united populace, because such freedom increased their dissensions, and he knew from experience that no wild beasts are so hostile to mankind as are most Christians in their savage hatred for one another.

Determined to remove Christian influences from the education of the young, he issued a rescript decreeing that:

...whoever wishes to teach should ... be approved by the judgment of the council and obtain a decree of the curials, by common agreement and the consent of the best of men. For this decree will be referred to me to deal with, so that they may take up their posts in the city schools with my approval as a higher kind of commendation.

When protests were raised, Julian made it clear that:

...now that the gods have granted us freedom, it seems to me absurd for men to teach what they disapprove. If they are real interpreters of the ancient classics, let them first imitate the ancients’ piety toward the gods. If they think the classics wrong in this respect, then let them go and teach Matthew and Luke in the church!

By specifying that “schoolmasters and teachers should excel in morality in the first place,” his fiat in fact dictated the imposition of pagan morality. By the same token, the appointment of Christians to public office was firmly, if unofficially discouraged.

Setting norms of competence for the teaching profession was nothing new in ancient Rome, but his was the first attempt to dictate to private consciences. By specifying that “schoolmasters and teachers should excel in morality in the first place,” his fiat in fact dictated the imposition of pagan morality. By the same token, the appointment of Christians to public office was firmly, if unofficially discouraged. In a letter to a provincial governor Julian writes:

I declare by the gods that I do not want the Galileans put to death or unjustly beaten, or to suffer anything else, but still I emphatically maintain that those who reverence the gods must be preferred to them. For through the folly of the Galileans nearly everything has been upset, whereas through the good pleasure of the gods we are all preserved.

He also undertook the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem, not because of any predilection for the Jews or their faith, but because he wished to discredit Christ’s prophecy, “There shall not be left here a stone upon a stone that shall not be thrown down” (Matt. 24:2). The project had to be abandoned almost immediately, however, for as one witness reported:

Frightful balls of flame kept bursting forth near the foundations of the temple and made it impossible for the workmen to approach the place, and some were even burned to death. And since the elements persistently drove them back, Julian gave up the attempt.

The measures Julian took to restore paganism, ably supported by its intelligentsia, are disturbingly similar to those used by secular forces today.

According to some historians, as Julian lay dying of his battle wounds, he cried out, “Galilean, thou hast conquered!” According to others he reproached his “father Mithra” with, “Helios, thou has ruined me!” Both quotes are probably apocryphal, but as his biographer Dom Ricciotti says, “They poetically sum up in a telling manner Julian’s endeavors.” We can hope they prefigure the end of paganism in our own time, destroyed once more by Christ with the unwitting aid of the devil. The measures Julian took to restore paganism, ably supported by its intelligentsia, are disturbingly similar to those used by secular forces today. Then as now, they by no means operate in a vacuum, for although Constantine had enfranchised the Catholic faith by the Edict of Milan, it was far from being universally practiced throughout the Empire, which continued to subsist politically on the old natural pagan principles and to observe the official festivals on which its culture had rested for so long. Living by two calendars, the one secular and the other ecclesiastical, as Christians do today, is nothing new.

Although visibly declining in Rome and the adjoining provinces, paganism flourished virtually unhindered in the west until the fifth century, when Clovis, King of the Franks, laid the first foundations of Christendom by declaring himself the imperial lieutenant of Christ the King in the temporal order. To him and not to Constantine is due the establishment of the new Holy Roman Empire on the law of the Gospel, for the first time in history tempering the rule of justice with that of love. It was by force of arms that he finally dispatched Arianism, which had been bleeding the Faith white in much the same way that Protestantism bleeds it today by proliferating varieties of “Christians.”

The “sharp two-edged sword” issuing from the mouth of Christ was literally directed to its target by the hand of Clovis, who by both word and deed delivered the fatal wound to the head of the state-beast. By means of the Catholic monarchy begun in him and his queen St. Clothilde, God invested the body politic with a Christian soul as vivifying principle. Anchored like the rest of creation in the union of matter and spirit, society would henceforth rest secure not only in indissoluble fidelity between man and wife in the private sector but between clergy and laity in the public domain. For so long as this cooperation was maintained, Christian society perdured.

...a false state automatically calls forth a false church... no government in history has ever maintained any degree of integrity without benefit of clergy of some kind.

Not that there can ever be actual separation between religion and civil law, whatever legal distinctions may be made between Church and state, for they are like man and wife. The close rapport between the state-beast and the church-beast in the apocalyptic vision demonstrates how even the powers of evil cannot act otherwise, for a false state automatically calls forth a false church. History testifies that only in relatively recent times has an outright rupture between them been seriously contemplated. Even so, it subsists as little more than an acceptable fiction, for no government in history has ever maintained any degree of integrity without benefit of clergy of some kind. Man was created to worship, and if he is to be governed at all, he must be tethered to something beyond himself.

The pagan was anything but godless. What he suffered from was in fact a super-abundance of gods. He worshiped almost anything... he was religious in the real sense of the word.

The root meaning of the word religio is to bind. Where the religion is not supernatural, the state may indeed live, but only temporarily, like an animal endowed with a natural soul. This was the general rule in all the great empires which rose and fell before the advent of Christianity, and it remains the rule in a few areas of the globe. To refer to the godless as pagans, or the pagans as godless, as if the words were interchangeable, betrays a myopic ignorance of what only the past can teach. The pagan was anything but godless. What he suffered from was in fact a super-abundance of gods. He worshiped almost anything. Deeply aware of his own dual material-spiritual nature and the intimate communication between these two elements in creation, he was religious in the real sense of the word. He peopled the heavens, the world and the underworld with crowded hierarchies of beings ranging all the way from a Supreme Being through lesser Olympian gods and goddesses, daemones, stars and deified heroes on down to woodland deities and the lowly lares and penates residing in every household, each exercising his specialty like the patron saints of the Catholic Communion.

In the Roman Empire the tribal gods of conquered nations were more than welcome to assume a position in the official pantheon, for the government literally ran on civic piety. As a matter of fact, any nation prepared to jettison its old gods on accepting Roman rule was by that very fact regarded as untrustworthy. Porphyry and Julian distrusted the early Christian for this very reason, branding him with impiety and atheism for allegedly apostasizing from the judaic traditions of his fathers to coin a religion without links to any particular nation or people. Today we forget, if we ever knew, that prominent Romans like Cicero and Pliny, along with Greeks like Plutarch, who was a priest of Delphi, were members of a state priesthood whose duty it was to offer communal sacrifices. The functions of the Augurs in defining public policy is well known. Diviners were called in to layout the reconstruction of the Capitol, which was begun in the presence of the Vestal Virgins.

What’s more, pagans were not only sensible of the citizen’s moral obligations to the state, but the state’s reciprocal obligation to promote the moral life of the citizen.

What’s more, pagans were not only sensible of the citizen’s moral obligations to the state, but the state’s reciprocal obligation to promote the moral life of the citizen. In a society where philosophers were not mere academicians, but practicing spiritual directors, Socrates was sentenced to death for impiety, on the grounds that he was subverting the youth of Athens. All schools of thought, whether Stoic, Platonist or Epicurean, peddled a specific way of life founded on the natural virtues as they saw them. As St. Paul noted, “the Jews require signs, and the Greeks seek after wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:22), determined like the gnostics to attain salvation through knowledge. Godless, however, they were not. Taking religion out of politics was unthinkable, for as Cicero said, “In all probability disappearance of piety towards the gods will entail disappearance of loyalty and social union among men as well, and of justice itself,” (Nat. D. 1,4).

So insecure is government without religion that when the old paganism recovered from its wound and resurrected as the United States of America, it set about almost immediately to constructing a mythology for itself. In its capital city today already a number of deified men preside in temples dedicated to them under the names of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and others. Certain days having been allocated to their memory in the secular sanctoral cycle, they are in the process of becoming “gods” in the selfsame way that the men of Olympus, with all their deadly virtues and all too human vices, were gradually transformed into Zeus, Apollo and the whole panoply of the pagan heavens. There are official hymns and many emblems, and a great goddess known as the Statue of Liberty guards the major seaport against the great Oriens ex alto, “the Just One from the east” who “shall rule kings” (Is. 41:2).


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