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§ 7. The Downfall of Heathenism.


The final dissolution of heathenism in the eastern empire may be dated from the middle of the fifth century. In the year 435 Theodosius II. commanded the temples to be destroyed or turned into churches. There still appear some heathens in civil office and at court so late as the beginning of the reign of Justinian I. (527–567). But this despotic emperor prohibited heathenism as a form of worship in the empire on pain of death, and in 529 abolished the last intellectual seminary of it, the philosophical school of Athens, which had stood nine hundred years. At that time just seven philosophers were teaching in that school,104104   Damascius of Syria, Simplicius of Cilicia (the most celebrated), Eulalius of Phrygia, Priscianus of Lydia, Isidore of Gaza, Hermias, and Diogenes. They had the courage to prefer exile to the renunciation of their convictions, and found with King Chosroes of Persia a welcome reception, but afterwards returned into the Roman empire under promise of toleration. Comp. Schröckh, xvi. p. 74 sqq. the shades of the ancient seven sages of Greece,—a striking play of history, like the name of the last west-Roman emperor, Romulus Augustus, or, in contemptuous diminutive, Augustulus, combining the names of the founder of the city and the founder of the empire.

In the West, heathenism maintained itself until near the middle of the sixth century, and even later, partly as a private religious conviction among many cultivated and aristocratic families in Rome, partly even in the full form of worship in the remote provinces and on the mountains of Sicily, Sardinia,105105   On these remains of heathenism in the West comp. the citations of Gieseler, i. §79, not. 22 and 23 (i. 2. p. 38-40. Engl. ed. of N. York, i. p. 219 sq.). and Corsica, and partly in heathen customs and popular usages like the gladiatorial shows still extant in Rome in 404, and the wanton Lupercalia, a sort of heathen carnival, the feast of Lupercus, the god of herds, still celebrated with all its excesses in February, 495. But, in general, it may be said that the Graeco-Roman heathenism, as a system of worship, was buried under the ruins of the western empire, which sunk under the storms of the great migration. It is remarkable that the northern barbarians labored with the same zeal in the destruction of idolatry as in the destruction of the empire, and really promoted the victory of the Christian religion. The Gothic king Alaric, on entering Rome, expressly ordered that the churches of the apostles Peter and Paul should be spared, as inviolable sanctuaries; and he showed a humanity, which Augustin justly attributes to the influence of Christianity (even perverted Arian Christianity) on these barbarous people. The Christian name, he says, which the heathen blaspheme, has effected not the destruction, but the salvation of the city.106106   Aug.: De Civit. Dei, l. i. c. 1-6. Odoacer, who put an end to the western Roman empire in 476, was incited to his expedition into Italy by St. Severin, and, though himself an Arian, showed great regard to the catholic bishops. The same is true of his conqueror and successor, Theodoric the Ostrogoth, who was recognized by the east-Roman emperor Anastasius as king of Italy (a.d. 500), and was likewise an Arian. Thus between the barbarians and the Romans, as between the Romans and the Greeks and in a measure also the Jews, the conquered gave laws to the conquerors. Christianity triumphed over both.

This is the end of Graeco-Roman heathenism, with its wisdom, and beauty. It fell a victim to a slow but steady process of incurable consumption. Its downfall is a sublime tragedy which, with all our abhorrence of idolatry, we cannot witness without a certain sadness. At the first appearance of Christianity it comprised all the wisdom, literature, art, and political power of the civilized world, and led all into the field against the weaponless religion of the crucified Nazarene. After a conflict of four or five centuries it lay prostrate in the dust without hope of resurrection. With the outward protection of the state, it lost all power, and had not even the courage of martyrdom; while the Christian church showed countless hosts of confessors and blood-witnesses, and Judaism lives to-day in spite of all persecution. The expectation, that Christianity would fall about the year 398, after an existence of three hundred and sixty-five years,107107   Augustin mentions this story, De Civit. Dei, xviii. 53. Gieseler (vol. i. § 79, not. 17) derives it from a heathen perversion of the Christian (heretical) expectation of the second coming of Christ and the end of the world; referring to Philastr. haer. 106: “Alia est haeresis de anno annunciato ambigens, quod ait propheta Esaias: Annuntiare annum Dei acceptabilem et diem retributionis. Putant ergo quidam, quod ex quo venit Dominus usque ad consummationem saeculi non plus nec minus fieri annorum numerum, nisi CCCLXV usque ad Christi Domini iterum de coelo divinam praesentiam.” turned out in the fulfilment to relate to heathenism itself. The last glimmer of life in the old religion was its pitiable prayer for toleration and its lamentation over the ruin of the empire. Its best elements took refuge in the church and became converted, or at least took Christian names. Now the gods were dethroned, oracles and prodigies ceased, sibylline books were burned, temples were destroyed, or transformed into churches, or still stand as memorials of the victory of Christianity.108108   Comp. August.: Epist. 232, where he thus eloquently addresses the heathen: Videtis simulacrorum templa partim sine reparatione collapsa, partim diruta, partim clausa, partim in usus alienos commutata; ipsaque simulacra vel confringi, vel incendi, vel includi, vel destrui; atque ipsas huius saeculi potestates quae aliquando pro simulacris populum Christianum persequebantur, victas et domitas, non a repugnantibus sed a morientibus Christianis, et contra eadem simulacra, pro quibus Christianos occidebant, impetus suos legesque vertisse et imperii nobilissimi eminentissimum culmen ad sepulcrum piscatoris Petri submisso diademate supplicare.”

But although ancient Greece and Rome have fallen forever, the spirit of Graeco-Roman paganism is not extinct. It still lives in the natural heart of man, which at this day as much as ever needs regeneration by the spirit of God. It lives also in many idolatrous and superstitious usages of the Greek and Roman churches, against which the pure spirit of Christianity has instinctively protested from the beginning, and will protest, till all remains of gross and refined idolatry shall be outwardly as well as inwardly overcome, and baptized and sanctified not only with water, but also with the spirit and fire of the gospel.

Finally the better genius of ancient Greece and Rome still lives in the immortal productions of their poets, philosophers, historians, and orators,—yet no longer an enemy, but a friend and servant of Christ. What is truly great, and noble, and beautiful can never perish. The classic literature had prepared the way for the gospel, in the sphere of natural culture, and was to be turned thenceforth into a weapon for its defence. It passed, like the Old Testament, as a rightful inheritance, into the possession of the Christian church, which saved those precious works of genius through the ravages of the migration of nations and the darkness of the middle ages, and used them as material in the rearing of the temple of modern civilization. The word of the great apostle of the Gentiles was here fulfilled: “All things are yours.” The ancient classics, delivered from the demoniacal possession of idolatry, have come into the service of the only true and living God, once “unknown” to them, but now everywhere revealed, and are thus enabled to fulfil their true mission as the preparatory tutors of youth for Christian learning and culture. This is the noblest, the most worthy, and most complete victory of Christianity, transforming the enemy into friend and ally.



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