The scene is Rome, about A.D. 300. The Augustus Maximian has returned to the ancient capital to oversee the construction of the lavish baths that will bear the name of the senior Augustus, Diocletian. Although Maximian is a rough customer from the Balkans and speaks a tough-guy Latin that sounds more like Rumanian than the language of Cicero, his limited brain does have room enough for one big idea: the grandeur of Rome that has been preserved by the pagan gods since the days of Romulus and the pious Numa. A better soldier than Diocletian, he has lived with death so long that fear is only a memory, and yet Maximian is afraid. He is afraid that his palefaced Caesar, Constantius, is soft on the one group that poses the gravest threat to Rome since the Gauls sacked the city in ancient times: the heretic sect of Jews who call themselves Christians—though if truth be told, there are more Romans and Greeks than Jews in that conspiracy these days.
A few years earlier, Maximian and the Caesar Galerius had talked Diocletian into cranking up the persecution of these nuisances. The meeting between Galerius and the Augustus had taken hours, but the young Constantius had been dragging his feet in Gaul, executing the worst troublemakers when he had to but showing little enthusiasm—much less initiative—for the task. Worse, there were rumors that his first wife (or concubine) was a convert to this unmanly, effeminate sect, and though Constantius had obediently put her away for Maximian’s own daughter, there was something about Constantius that Maximian did not like. “Yeah,” he had admitted to Diocletian, “he’s a good soldier all right and makes an excellent administrator, but the man is too nice. He acts as if justice were something that could be weighed and measured like barley in the market and not a fat Dalmatian pig to be taken at sword point and carved up.”
Constantius would not have posed a problem if Diocletian had not been talking about retiring and insisting that the two Augusti get out of the way at the same time, making this Christsymp Constantius not only Augustus, but senior Augustus.
Such a man was bound to relax the persecutions, perhaps even legalize this so-called church (or rather churches, since there were so many competing sects among these Christians that, if one got into power, it would be sure to persecute the other). Divided or not, these Christians had seemed to thrive on persecution, multiplying to the point that they might soon make up a fourth of the population. Given any encouragement, they might take over the whole empire, which—without the gods’ protection—would be doomed. Imagine an army of Christians all expecting to enjoy peace on earth with Germans. As soon expect the lion to lie down with the lamb!
With a gloomy sense of foreboding, the emperor had convened a secret meeting to discuss the Christian threat. He had invited his son, Maxentius, whom he wanted to succeed him. The boy was lazy and a little wild, but he was more of a man than Constantius would ever be and infinitely preferable to that pretty-boy son of his, Constantine. He had also brought in the Caesar Galerius, who at least was very sound on the Christian issue, and for additional support he summoned some intellectual firepower. Porphyry, a student of Plotinus and the grand old man among the Platonists, had written a devastating work (in 15 books!) against the Christians. This was no cheap propaganda (at least that is what he had been told—Maximian was not much of a reader), but solid argument based on fact.
Iamblichus was Porphyry’s student, but he had broken with his master on the subject of magic. Porphyry, like Plotinus, was a rigorous philosopher who despised the everyday gods as lower demons who demanded blood sacrifice. Iamblichus, by contrast, believed in everything, especially the more exotic demons of Egypt and Syria. To tell the truth, Iamblichus was a bit of a nut, but his mishmash of Egyptian superstition and Greek philosophy appealed to the mob.
At the last minute, he invited an old-fashioned patrician, Anicius Priscus, expert in Etruscan augury. Priscus was a well known snob, an expert on senatorial procedures—as if the senate had really mattered for a hundred years.
The meeting opened with an interminable prayer from Iamblichus, who invoked every god Maximian had ever heard of (and then some), culminating with “Oh gods of Egypt, look down with favor on your brothers Maximian and Galerius, you gods who expelled the impious Jews from your land which they had polluted with a plague of leprosy . . . ” When it was finally over, Maximian got down to business. “You guys didn’t tell nobody you were coming here, did ya? All right. Now listen. The Caesar here and me, we’re very concerned about this Christian business. The most illustrious Galerius has been doing his part to eliminate this conspiracy, and don’t think that the divine Diocletian and me aren’t grateful. But even if the Caesar Constantius did his best to eradicate these pests, we’d still have a problem. They are like rats who can live on the poison we’re feeding them. We need a really long-range plan, a solution to the problem that will be final. Let’s hear first from the most noble and illustrious Caesar.”
Galerius outlined his own thorough system of persecution and repression, concluding with the confident prediction that, with a little more help from Constantius and the rest of the boys, within ten years he would have burnt up all their books, torn down all their meetinghouses, and rooted out every last of these maggots and forced them to renounce or die.
“Hear! Hear!” chimed in Maxentius, nursing his hangover with a bottle of unwatered wine mixed with foul-smelling herbs. “But if you fail,” the boy added shrewdly, “doesn’t that mean we’ll just have to learn to live with the problem?” Galerius assured him that would never happen.
Porphyry said nothing, but his expression suggested doubt. Pressed, he explained that ideas could not be rooted out so easily with fire and sword. “It’s not as if Christians are completely wrong, after all. In their crude and primitive way, they are only talking about ideas that the divine Plato and Plotinus had discovered and worked out in detail. This Christ of theirs, as some of His own followers are saying, is only a name for the Mind of God that emanates from the One.”
“Then what’s the problem?” interjected Maxentius.
“The problem,” continued the philosopher, “is that these idiots insist on claiming to be not only original but to have an exclusive grasp of the truth. Intellectually, they’re babies, but with all their mumbo-jumbo, they can appeal to the uneducated masses who, even in these enlightened times, are in the majority. But truth, as they say, will out, and with a little help from the sacred purse, I could send out a squad of young philosophers who would totally discredit them.”
“You, Iamblichus,” asked the Augustus, “you agree with this, right? I mean, this guy is your teacher.”
Iamblichus conceded that Porphyry had made an excellent beginning, but that, as always, he put too much faith in the power of reason. “New ages,” he said, “require new methods,” and although the Christians were undoubtedly a plague upon the empire, they did have the merit of seeing through the dull sterility of the official religion. “Of course, the soldiers have their Mithra, and some others are initiated into the mysteries either at Eleusis or somewhere else; but for most people, religion means simply going to this or that official ceremony and waiting for the free barbecue. Not exactly inspiring, is it?”
Pressed to offer an alternative, Iamblichus sketched out a rough plan for a new religion that would include the old rituals and gods but would also provide the mystery, magic, and excitement that his students knew how to create. They would need an organization, like the Christian one, and an official theology that could be put together from Iamblichus’s own writings, which not only reflected the authentic traditions of Plato and Plotinus (Porphyry winced visibly), but also went back to the most ancient wisdom of the Egyptians who built the pyramids. “As a philosopher, I quite see the need for reason and science, but not the abstract science of Aristotle and Strato but the true science of Thoth and Isis that confers power. And frankly, it will give them an opportunity for sexual thrills that is sadly lacking in the enemy’s religion.”
Priscus, meanwhile, looking distracted, remained silent. Maximian, who could not have said who his father was, much less have produced an ancestral mask, could not stand the noble Roman type and consoled himself by remembering that he could have the jerk tortured to death at the end of the meeting. “So you, the patrician, you don’t go along with this? What’s the matter—you don’t like getting advice from a Syrian, and maybe you don’t like taking orders from an Illyrian Hunkey?”
“Lord, I would never presume even to form, much less to express an opinion, in the presence of the divine Hercules himself (as Maximian was often represented).
These Anicii had been practicing the art of apple-polishing for 500 years. No wonder they were so good at it. Pressed to contribute his two dinars to the conversation, the aged senator explained that the days of his people and their gods had come and probably gone. “The temples in Rome are virtually deserted, except when there is food to be had, and the only gods the people love are divinities from Egypt or Persia or Syria. Neither the little Latin godlets of the fields and farms nor the majestic deities of the Capitol are revered. My family and a few others, like the Symmachi, we follow the old wavs because they are old and they are ours. We wish these Christians would go away, but we wish them no harm. If their young god defeats our old ones, it is because he is kept strong on the wine of their faith. We, alas, have not faith enough to keep a fly alive.”
“Well,” interjected the emperor, “what about this plan for taking over their ideas and using them?”
“Sire, if I must speak plainly, I am against it. We Romans and Greeks are civilized people, and we despise the degenerate cults of these Oriental impostors. Porphyry is a good man in his own way, but this Iamblichus is no more a philosopher than you are—”
“What’s that?” snapped Hercules-on-earth.
“—than you are an ordinary man, sire. If we must be displaced by these newcomers, then let us preserve our dignity and not get down into the same Eastern gutter with the followers of the Nazarene. Some of my grandchildren are already reading these scriptures of theirs and studying their books. Well, ‘What’s the harm?’ I ask myself After all, what difference, ultimately, does it make, if we offer sacrifices to Mary the Mother of Christus or to the Great Mother?
“If we can survive Mithra and the Unconquered Sun, we can survive Christus. And to tell the truth, I prefer the company of their bishops, who are sincerely mistaken, to these greasy frauds with their Egyptian fantasies . . . “
Within moments, Anicius was on the torturers’ hooks as a suspected Christian, and Iamblichus’s plan for setting up an official anti-Christian church was adopted unanimously by Maximian and Galerius, as it were, the two young members of the committee. “But,” Porphyry suggested delicately, “What if?”
“What if they do win? They have so far refused to be treated as one more mystery cult, and if they once get control, they will have to exterminate our religion, just as we have tried to exterminate theirs.”
Iamblichus saw the point at once. “To prepare for that event, we must keep our plan a complete secret. Our little conspiracy will be a mystical brotherhood, handing down the hidden teachings from one generation to the next. When things get hot, we’ll pretend to be the most Christian of Christians, and when things cool down again—as everything in the course of nature must—we’ll be able to come out again in the open. In the meantime, what’s to prevent us from infiltrating and taking over their entire conspiracy?”
Iamblichus’s plot seemed a little loopy to the Balkans banditti who controlled the world, and, in the event, the divine emperors had enough to do in the next few years, fighting among themselves and, ultimately, against Constantius’ son who eliminated both Galerius and Maxentius, the latter with the help of the Christians’ God, Who sent him a vision. Encouraged, Constantine proceeded first to official toleration and then to active encouragement of the Church.
Iamblichus, however, was not discouraged, and he passed his secret plan down to his disciples, especially to Aedesius, who taught the secret to Maximus, who by good fortune became the mentor of Constantine’s talented nephew, Julian. When Julian, by a stroke of luck, became emperor (just at the moment his cousin Constantius was about to annihilate his imperial pretensions), he was in a position to begin turning back the clock. To lessen the influence of Christians, he forbade them to teach pagan learning; he instituted an elaborate hierarchy of priesthoods, and spent so much of his free time in personally performing sacrifices that he was nicknamed the “slaughterer.”
Unfortunately, old Priscus turned out to have been right. While there were riots and a fresh spate of mob actions and martyrdoms, pagans did not rally to the new religion. By now, most of them had Christian friends, and even those who hated the Church regarded the idealistic young emperor as a figure of fun.
Julian’s death and disastrous campaign against the Parthians, though it was not foretold by his neopagan philosopher friends who egged him on, was predicted by the Sibylline books and by the Etruscan soothsayers he took with him. It was as if there were still a drop of truth in the old-time religion, that the gods were having one last laugh before they went to sleep, at the expense of the neopagans. All of Julian’s work was rapidly dismantled in the succeeding reigns of Jovian and Valentinian, and in a little more than 100 years, Christianity was established and the old religions outlawed by Theodosius.
The underground conspiracy, however, went on. There were still educated pagans both in the Latin West and in the Greek East, and some of them were let in on the plot. Documents are scarce, but every few hundred years we get a glimpse into the conspiracy—Proclus, the late-fourth-century “philosopher” who openly carried on the project of contaminating Plato with pseudo-Orphic magical mysteries; Michael Psellus, the 11th-century Byzantine historian who alternated between deriding pagan myths and discovering in them “a deeper wisdom”—but, for the most part, we are in the dark.
The light, so to speak, begins to dawn in the 15th century, when the Greek Platonist George Gemistus Plethon arrives in Italy in 1439 with his friend Bessarion, as part of the Greek delegation to the Council of Florence. In Florence, he makes a big impression on a local gangster-politician named Cosimo de Medici, and Cosimo arranges a secret meeting to which he invites, in addition to both Plethon and Bessarion, several young Italian intellectuals, including Marsilio Ficino.
Both sides are very wary. The town is crawling with believers, and no one trusts Bessarion; Rumor has it that he is even prepared to sell out the Greeks to the Latins—imagine what he might do if he could get a price for all their heads! Still, Plethon has vouched for him, telling the gangster-banker: “He’s not a real member of the movement I’ve told you about, but he is a sympathizer, a friendly companion on our great journey.”
WTiat went on in the meeting will be revealed at a later time, but the principal result was the formation of the famous Platonic Academy at Florence, whose members gathered up all the neoplatonist superstition they could find and disseminated it as the perennial wisdom of the ancients going back to the builders of the pyramids. Plethon lived to a ripe old age, dying before the Greek Church could give him the dismemberment which his openly pagan writings had invited. His friend Bessarion— now a cardinal in the Roman Church—sent a beautiful eulogy to the family, saying that if Plethon’s belief in metempsychosis were correct, then he must have been the reincarnation of Plato and Plotinus. Plethon would now be enjoying eternity in the Elysian fields with his beloved Greek heroes.
Bessarion remained a good friend of Ficino, whom he addressed as “the Platonist” (as opposed, presumably, to a Christian). Cardinal Bessarion conducted himself as an orthodox Christian in public, but with Ficino he could afford to be more direct, and Ficino was bold enough to write Bessarion in 1469 that the darkness in which Plato’s thoughts had been cloaked was dispelled—as earth is burnt out of gold—in the laboratory of Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, Proclus, and now of Bessarion, who has written “the” book on Plato. A significant list, to say the least.
Within a hundred years, the movement has grown far and wide and developed so many branches that it is impossible to keep track of them. “Platonism” and “Hellenism” become code words for an all-out attack on Aristotle, whose philosophy is identified with Christian orthodoxy. The Church itself is infected, and the misrule of Cosimo’s great-grandson (Pope Leo X) helps to drive Luther into open rebellion.
By the early 18th century, some of the extremists form even more bizarre societies of “freemasons,” using the nonsense in the Chaldean Oracles and in Hermes Trismegistus to claim a (nonexistent) Egyptian origin for their doctrines. In the 20th century, these theories will emerge in a new form under the guise of Afrocentrism, which merely changes the skin color of the pharaohs. In the meantime, a new nation had been created in the Atlantean West, whose leaders were all initiates into the lower levels of the mysteries. They laid out the capital of their New World according to the astrological theories of the Masters, and emblazoned on their most sacred object—a green piece of paper held in universal reverence—an image of the pyramid surmounted by the Great Eye.
Thou hast triumphed, O Syrian.