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Caecilius_est_pater

Roman attitudes to the past

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Hi guys

 

I am a theologian who needs some help from a classicist. I am having a look at Tertullian at the moment, a Christian from the 2nd century AD and every inch a Roman rhetorician. The thing I am particularly interested in is his argument that things which are old have more credibility than things that are recent. We see this assumption in action when he claims that Judaeo-Christian monotheism is more ancient than the state-sponsored imperial cult, for example. Any idea where this attitude might be coming from? I guessed it might have something to do with the use of precedence in law, or maybe with the notion of auctoritas, which (as far as I understand) signifies an orginating power. Any references or useful citations anyone knows?

 

Thanks

 

Caecilius

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I, unfortunately, don't know a lot about this sort of thing, but I would highly recommend you to get in touch with Mats Pehrson (University of Gothenburg/G

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Ancient attitude toward the past, especially roman attitude, was indeed always a view that the past was better, men of then better than those of the days, and that the great teachers of bygone times held truth over more modern ones : this later attitude was more and more reinforced in the late empire and led to the mind spirit that dominated until the Renaissance's philosopher who began to think by themselve and not out of ancient lights anymore.

 

This attitude translated itself in many ways, but constant references to elder writers was one of the most comon. In Rome the notion of Mos Maiorum (customs of the elders) was also one of it's main form, and Cato the elder's texts are a good exemple of this attitude in the Republican period. Cicero did also use the concept, but Augustus archaising politics and esthetics are probably one of the best exemple of how it was used in rethorics (while the actions were much more radicaly modern, instituting a new way of governement).

 

Also think to the traditional "4 ages" with the oldest one being the best, a theme that found great resonance in the 1st century BCE and CE.

 

For later periods, you may want to take a look at Plutarch's works (exemple from the past to educate the modern men of his time (some 50 years before Tertulien), and also to some of the discourses of Julian II (so called "Julian the apostate" in christian litterature) who did also promote in a way a taking of the past as exemple.

 

In christian litterature (admitedly not my best area of knowledge) this view that the earlier men were better and that the elder customs were to be prefered is commonly found.

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Wow. That sounds like a great topic.

 

As you have suggested, the Ancient Romans respected older Ancient cultures; therefore, they respected the Ancient Egyptians as well as the Ancient Hebrews. (Keep in perspective that the time period between today and Cleopatra's day is SHORTER than the period between her day and the earliest Egyptian pyramids.)

 

And as you suggested, the early Christians tried to emphasize their relationship with the more respected Ancient Hebrews. They would, otherwise, be considered just another upstart religious cult, undeserving of any special toleration.

 

The problem is that I can't think of anywhere they wrote, "Hey, we respect those Ancient Egyptians and Hebrews because they are much older than we are, so we will cut them some slack."

 

What you may need to do is just give examples of their special toleration for those two cultures: Allowing the Hebrews to maintain their monotheism (while still showing respect to the Emperor), allowing the Egyptians to continue with their unique images and gods on their coins, etc.

 

http://www.unrv.com/forum/topic/11074-roman-coins-from-egypt/

 

Maybe you'll have to research the Chrisitian Apologies closely to find passages insisting that their movement is a continuation of a more Ancient tradition and not some new bizarre cult.

 

I agree that the Emperor Julian (called the Apostate by later Chrisitans) tries to separate the Chrisitians from the Hebrews, thus, denying the Christians any special status in the Roman World.

 

http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/julian_apostate_galileans_0_intro.htm

 

From Julian:

 

For they [the Christians] have not accepted a single admirable or important doctrine of those that are held either by us Hellenes or by the Hebrews who derived them from Moses; but from both religions they have gathered what has been engrafted like powers of evil, as it were, on these nations----atheism from the Jewish levity, and a sordid and slovenly way of living from our indolence and vulgarity; and they desire that this should be called the noblest worship of the gods.

 

Why is it, I repeat, that after deserting us you do not accept the law of the Jews or abide by the sayings of Moses? No doubt some sharp-sighted person will answer, "The Jews too do not sacrifice." But I will convict him of being terribly dull-sighted, for in the first place I reply that neither do you also observe any one of the other customs observed by the Jews; and, secondly, that the Jews do sacrifice in their own houses, and even to this day everything that they eat is consecrated; and they pray before sacrificing, and give the right shoulder to the priests as the firstfruits; but since they have been deprived of their temple, or, as they are accustomed to call it, their holy place, they are prevented from offering the firstfruits of the sacrifice to God. But why do you not sacrifice, since you have invented your new kind of sacrifice and do not need Jerusalem at all? And yet it was superfluous to ask you this question, since I said the same thing at the beginning, when I wished to show that the Jews agree with the Gentiles, except that they believe in only one God. [According to Cyril, Julian then says that the Christians in worshipping not one or many gods, but three, have strayed from both Jewish and Hellenic teaching.] That is indeed peculiar to them and strange to us; since all the rest we have in a manner in common with them----temples, sanctuaries, altars, purifications, and certain precepts. For as to these we differ from one another either not at all or in trivial matters

 

http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/julian_apostate_galileans_1_text.htm

 

Keep us informed. We can all learn from your work.

 

 

guy also known as gaius

Edited by guy

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Rome was a very traditionally minded civilisation. Even long after becoming an urban society, they retained the idyllic idea of rural bliss, although that dream actually had very little to do with the somewhat sharper edged truth.

 

The idea of a 'golden age' in the past is a common theme in human psychology. We do that today, ourselves, and you can view the evidence on television or film. With each change in society there are those that prosper and those who don't. In general terms, the poverty stricken masses (of which there were many in Roman times) regarded the past as something they had lost, whereas the prosperous manipulated the idea that the golden age was recoverable. Again, this sort of behaviour might sound familiar to you.

 

The problem with your question is that you appear to assume judaeo-christian religious structures are unique and in some way a pure if variable bloodline. Some of it is, but remember that christianity is a judaism/mithraism cocktail repackaged to create a personality cult. Later the Romans repackaged it again, established what heresy was, and essentially created the foundations of christian fervour in later times.

 

For that reason then, not only was early christianity based on something old and established in the human psyche, but had also borrowed many ideas such as Jesus's miracles from external faiths with the same credibility.

 

I think it's important to realise why people were influenced by this religious melting pot. Life for the ancient Romans was usually short and unhealthy. Around three out of every five Romans had died before adulthood. Disease, violence, accidents, all were potential killers and in many cases there was little the Romans understood about the causes of these untimely deaths.

 

Therefore we see the idea of 'fate' in Roman circles. If a man died before his time or perhaps went on to political glory, it was 'fate' that had decided it. That idea runs in parallel with appeals to the gods for assistance. The personal greeting and request of a worshipper before his divine patron was a fundamental part of their superstitious lives, done in more or less the same way as visiting the local patrician for a favour or benefice, yet unlike the devious manipulative patrician the gods were cold, remote, almost unwilling to listen.

 

On this angle christianity offered a different deal. Yes, life is pretty tough sometimes. But put up with it and remember that loyal worshippers go to paradise. Not you, sinner. Your fate will be eternal damnation. In that contract with God the believer has hope for the future. In order for that contract to have credibility, it must rely on a record of achievement, thus the judaic tales we find in the Bible become proof and indeed moral lessons learned from the past.

 

Of course judaeo-christian beliefs were not the only alternatives to graeco-roman. In the early empire particularly many exotic cults arose, probably for the same reason that christianity emerged, to find new adherents among the networks of Roman settlements.

 

There is an aspect to this that we can't ignore however. There were many people in the empire with axes to grind - researchers now believe that the infamous Book Of Revelations was not a long term prophetic work, but a politically inspired call to arms for those who wanted Rome to burn, rather like the middle eastern propaganda against America in modern times. Again similar thought patterns are evident. This also applies to the end-timers, those christians who believe the end of the world is imminent. The past is bound to be seen as a good thing if tomorrow we die horribly, and let's not forget, for all the mythologising that surrounds judaeo-christian beliefs, Jesus himself has been identified as very much an end-timer.

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Thanks guys - all really interesting and useful.

 

What I am interested in is Tertullian's allusion to God's prophecy to Rebekah in Gensis 25:23 - 'two nations are striving in your womb, and the elder shall serve the younger.' The ref occurs in 'Adversus Judaeos' and I think it's a way round the problem that Christianity was only a recent religion, certainly far newer than Judaism (something, indeed, that Julian II was to seize on a couple of centuries later). The problem is an especially embarrassing one for Tertullian, as he uses the argument from antiquity against both pagans and heretics in other works. The word 'maior' crops up in the Latin of the prophecy, so this brings in mos maiorum really nicely.

 

Thanks once again people - if anyone asks me why I think the internet is amazing, I will mention all the invaluable pointers you have given me.

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The problem is that christianity in the earlier half of the empire was not a united movement. it consisted of small sects in the same manner as syrian cults, with typically one bishop making a fortune out of his worshippers good faith. One Roman in later times even said "Make me a bishop of Rome today and I'll become a christian tomorrow". One might argue that the situation has been allowed to return to that state in some respects.

 

If then tertullian refers to christianity as God's kingdom on Earth, it was only due to some sense of fellowship rather than being part of one movement, and the political aspirations of christianity (perfectly natural for the Roman mindset) only sprouted when they realised that influence beyond ownership of property (and perhaps belief) was now possible. Marcellinus for instance describes the roads of the early 4th century as being "full of galloping bishops".

 

That said, christianity emerges partly from the beliefs of a conquered and disgruntled people. A part of me wonders if the expansion of christianity into the empire had some ulterior motives. It wasn;'t for nothing that Nero blamed the christians for the Great Fire of Rome in ad64. Some researchers have come to the conclusion that zealots or christian activists were indeed at work in the eternal city though clearly many pagans took advantage of the fire for their own reasons.

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It wasn;'t for nothing that Nero blamed the christians for the Great Fire of Rome in ad64. Some researchers have come to the conclusion that zealots or christian activists were indeed at work in the eternal city though clearly many pagans took advantage of the fire for their own reasons.

This event has always stricken me as a testament to the quite extraordinary potency of the Christian message in the ancient world. In a time when even urgent military matters concerning insurgencies could take years to be brought to fruition, it took only 3 decades from the death of Jesus (an unknown Jewish rabbi from the far end of the empire) and just one decade from the start of Paul's mission to the gentiles, for the Christian movement to become "food for thought" for the Roman emperor and his closest circle. Quite remarkable, but that's for another topic I guess :)

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That's possibly overstating the concept. Realise that early christian sects had a bad reputation. They were accused of drowning infants, vampirism, cannabalism, and denying the imperial cult, all of which no doubt evolved from observers totally misunderstanding christian practises. Although small in number, these rumours would make them mysterious and possibly dangerous sects in the midst of Roman society, so they were in fact attracting more attention than their numbers would suggest.

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Also don't forget that the imperial court was interested in the "strange, new and esotheric" : Simon the Magician came to court, and thus so were invited apostles of this strange jewish magician : this his probably how Nero heard of those christians that could make such wonderfull scapegoats later on...

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Yet Jesus, despite rave reviews in the Bible, never got a gig in Rome? You'd think a miracle worker would attract more attention from the Romans than the local governor.

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Don't forget that Jesus' reputation was quite small outside Judea at the time he was wandering around it. And the tales of his miracles were not so widely known, especially in the upper circles, and even more especially in the roman circles. Roman never quite knew what those jews were really about, and never really cared until the issue of paying hommage to the emperor came in. Jesus was a local magician who did not travel very widely to improve his reputation. Simon, on the other hand, seems to have curied favors with the powerfulls, including romans, and went to Rome at about the same time as other apostles if the texts are to be believed. He knew his marketing while Jesus had his done mostly post mortem by his bunch of friends...

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And you don't find that odd? I seriously don't believe that a man who feeds thousands out of thin air and cures all manner of ailments with a click of his fingers is going to escape notice. Something like that would be talked about. Far from being obscure, his reputation would have skyrocketed. Yet the Romans seem blithely unconcerned? Apparently only when they start thinking he's a bad element do they bring him in for questioning - and according to the official version of events the Romans aren't aware of this man's miracles despite his ticker tape welcome in Jerusalem.

 

Sorry. I don't buy it. I stand by the rather obvious glorification using myths that have a great similarity to those found in India subsequent to events. That's the reason Jesus made a somewhat modest impression on the ancient world - it's because huis personality cult re-invented him after his death.

 

That's not so unusual. Bear in mind his followers were making a living by preaching and the more impressive the story, the more worshippers flocked to their congregations. We also see the same thing happening to real life personalities, such as a certain sub-roman war leader who was subsequently described as a king, given a miraculous background, and comes with a promise that he'll return one day to lead everyone to safety again. Sounds familiar? It should.

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