Wednesday, March 04, 2020


Ambitiously Overarching Explanations

Ramsay MacMullen, Paganism in the Roman Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), pp. 122-124, with notes on pp. 202-203:
The most ambitiously overarching explanations for the success of Mithraism lie in the characterization of religious life in the times at large. By contemporaries, that is rarely attempted.29 Among modern authorities, the best known, Cumont, begins by sketching the decline and recession of older alternatives to Mithraism. In our period of study, "less and less is that sturdy health of character found that, unable to depart at length from the road, felt no need of a guide and comforter. The spreading sense of decline and frailty could be noted that follows the wanderings of the passions; the same weakness that leads to crime urged the search for absolution ... ," etc. etc.30 For none of these thoughts does Cumont, or any adherent of the "Spiritual-Fortitude, Spiritual-Weakening" school of interpretation, offer any serious substantiation. The terms of description themselves are useless as too vague; useless a second time as normative according to prejudices not divulged, perhaps never examined; and useless a third time as applied to a population whose moral attributes and inner thoughts are not only almost entirely hidden from us but not even investigated through such few data as could be used.

But Cumont continues: "In the third century, the misery of the times was the cause of such great suffering...that people sought asylum in the expectation of a better life." This argument, making of the "Oriental" cults in general a retreat for desperation, can be expanded backward and forward in time to account for all the manifestations and appeal associated with those cults.31 Indeed, it must be expanded, if their popularity is rightly reflected in the only promising category of evidence available to us, inscriptions. Such a correspondence is generally assumed. The number of epigraphic testimonies begins its steep rise from the earliest Empire, up to a point a little past A.D. 200. As we have seen, however, the correspondence is illusory and the rise means nothing, because all inscriptions of every sort rise equally.

Beyond that, what sense does it make to assign a single character to so long an era? — as if one were to say, "in Italy, Switzerland, the Low Countries, Britain, France, and Spain between about 1400 and 1600, people were tense and worried." The statement denies the very change and complexity which it is the job of historians to discover, and which indeed they never fail to reveal, wherever their sources allow them to portray events and figures of the past full-scale. As if a century, let alone two or three, could be "an age" — that is, a stretch of time in which just about everybody acted in significantly different ways from other human beings before and after, but with something close to a characteristic uniformity among themselves! It can only be the observer's ignorance that would make all the life of a vast area for so long a span, in the mind's eye, blur, shrink, stop. Such ignorance is the natural condition of the ancient historian, paradoxically inviting him to arrange his few scattered facts into grand patterns — the fewer, the grander. Where the temptations and the hazards are so pressing, perhaps it should be a rule that no one may generalize about ancient history until he has served an old-fashioned, seven-year apprenticeship in the teaching, or at least in the formal study, of modern history!32

29. Paus. 8.2.5, complaining of evil days as the reason why no new gods come into being from men. The passage happens to coincide with, and contradict, CIG 5980=IG 14.966= SIG2 807, which reports a miracle in Rome, bystanders rejoicing "because the powers were living then in the reign of our emperor Antoninus." Porphyry in Euseb., Praep. ev. 5.1 (179df.) speaks of the declining presence of the gods, but in a polemical setting.

30. Cumont (1929) 38—a sort of rephrasing of the "failure-of-nerve" interpretation. Gordon (1972) 93f. rightly puts the latter interpretation aside, speaking of Dodds (but there are others behind Dodds, e.g., Gilbert Murray). For similar generalizing about spiritual sturdiness, compare A.H.M. Jones (1963) 19: "the peasant masses, who were made of tougher stuff than the townsmen," clung to Christianity under the Tetrarchs.

31. Cumont (1929) 39f., above, p. 64, and similarly in Laurin (1954) 8.

32. In works demonstrating the most admirable scholarship and powers in philology, one may find statements that no historian would dream of making. Drawing from major authorities, throughout this chapter's notes, I have scattered examples which it would be invidious to recall at this point.
Related post: Generalizations.

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