Thursday, January 16, 2014

When gods collide

Robin Lane Fox's Pagans and Christians is a model of what a book of historical scholarship should be. Covering the greatest period of spiritual conversion that ever took place in the Western world, it is illuminating from cover to cover.

Lane Fox obviously put a prodigious amount of study into it, but his erudition is reader-friendly. He sets a middle course between the "literary" style of, say, Gilbert Murray and the objective, dessicated tone adopted by many of today's academics. There's no "fine writing" here, but our author has a gift for choosing the right words to say what he means concisely.

His observations are anchored by known facts, but so much of the documentation has been dissolved in time's workshop that there is no escaping the need for conjecture at many points.

Lane Fox frequently laments missing pieces of evidence, but is unafraid to advance his own views, citing an astonishing number of sources old and recent. The 104 pages of end notes include authors he praises and others he disagrees with. I never felt that he was pushing some grand theory, but rather trying to distinguish among what we can be reasonably sure of, what is probable, and what is legend or fiction.

The subject is the long period when Christianity became a serious alternative to the traditional gods that had served the leading Mediterranean civilizations since before the so-called Golden Age of Greece. Sometimes there was peaceful coexistence, although the new Christian sect lived with it under protest, never acknowledging the pagan pantheon. Now and then, however, the Roman government felt threatened and tried to punish a growing opposition from what they felt were nutcases with a weird Middle Eastern belief system.

Most people in the Roman Empire were casual about spiritual questions -- not one of their attractive traits -- although they revered the many gods who took up so much shelf space in their civilization, for the sake of tradition and politics. Christians were fiercely devoted to their one God and the savior, Jesus, he assigned to the human race. It seems inevitable that a culture with fanatical beliefs would gradually gain ascendance against those who were indifferent to higher truths and lived for money and power.

The story stretches through three centuries, and although Pagans and Christians is a large book it obviously could not be comprehensive in describing the entire period. Lane Fox chooses to concentrate on a manageable number of episodes that he believes give the flavor of their times. For instance, the pagan mindset is suggested in the most thorough account I've ever read of the oracles that were taken quite seriously from Greece to the eastern Mediterranean provinces. 

A long section describes the Great Persecution of Christians in Diocletian's reign, but not in terms of statistics or particular events; Lane Fox recounts the letters and behavior of Christians who were imprisoned, sometimes for months, before being martyred. (Not all the Roman authorities were vicious toward their captives -- many tried to convince the Christians to save their lives by what they considered a meaningless symbolic act of honoring the pagan gods.)

For another example, the author delves deeply into the meaning of a speech given by the Emperor Constantine after he had legalized and championed Christianity, showing all the influences that seem to have gone into his oration.

Despite its quality, I can't honestly recommend Pagans and Christians except to readers with a particular interest in its subject. For most it will be too much of a good thing. While I appreciated and enjoyed the book, there were some pages that told me more than I really wanted to know about certain aspects of those times.

Robin Lane Fox must be a genius at absorbing and notating information. It's hard to imagine how he could have read all the source material (including some that has not been translated from Latin or Greek) and had time to write the book, let alone others, including several about gardening, which he apparently pursues with a deep interest rather than as a hobby. He is a biographer of Alexander the Great, which led to his being involved with Oliver Stone's movie, and even playing a role as a cavalry leader.

He appears in this brief interview, speaking with a traditional "Oxbridge" accent which will probably soon be eliminated in cultural Marxist Britain as a purportedly distasteful survival of class distinctions. 

If I should happen to be given a long life, I would probably someday read Pagans and Christians again, all 681 pages not including the notes. I can hardly offer a greater compliment.


zazie said...

Most people in the WESTERN Empire ARE casual about spiritual questions - not one of their more attractive traits- MOSLEMS ARE fiercely devoted to their one God, ALLAH, and the PROPHET,MAHOMET, he assigned to the human race.
It seems inevitable that a culture with fanatical beliefs WILL gradually gain ascendance against those who ARE indifferent to higher truths and LIVE for money and POWER;
Have I read you right?

Rick Darby said...

You have indeed correctly grasped the implication, Zazie.

Stogie said...

I know what you mean about "erudition being reader friendly." I am currently reading "The Experience of God" by David Bentley Hart. The book is a nice refutation of atheism, but the author seems intent on using every word in his prodigious vocabulary. This means the reader has to work very hard to get to the meaning, and many readers will give up and not finish the book.

I really enjoy your clean, crisp writing style, Rick. It flows through the mind like the words were greased, easily understood and delightfully so.

Rick Darby said...

Thank you very much for the compliment on my style. Actually it rarely comes easily to me. I spend a lot of time revising, as much "unwriting" as writing. One of my weaknesses is over-elaboration and I have to constantly trim the fat.