The debate over the proper or legal relationship between Church and State usually takes place in a very narrow context, e.g., religious pluralism in 21st century America or the “theocracy” of the Estates of the Church. This debate is usually acrimonious because it involves, in the first case, a struggle between atheists and theists and in the second between groups of Christians, each convinced that it holds a monopoly on truth and that other Christians are not only wrong but damnably and devilishly wrong.
Our pagan friends tell us that the fault lies with Christianity itself or, more broadly speaking, with monotheism. Ancient polytheists tolerated all religions except for Christianity, because it made an exclusive claim on truth and on the loyalty of its adherents. Actually, this is not true, and it is useful to pause a moment to correct this error.
Now, generally speaking it seems a reasonable proposition that the more varied the polytheism the less likely it is to persecute heretics, but exceptions abound. The Romans of the late republic and empire gratefully (in most cases) accepted strange gods. In the case of the Greek gods, the Romans made an equation, sometimes valid, between, for example, Zeus and Jupiter. Other equations were misleading. Aphrodite and Ares are not Venus and Mars, Minerva is not Athena. In the case of Egypt and the Middle East, the Romans accepted many of their gods—but, it should always be remembered—in an already Hellenized and thus sanitized form.
The Romans of the republic did not like the cult of Bacchus and we know of an incident where citizens who participated in these rites were condemned to death. Romans also persecuted the Druids both because the Druids fomented rebellion against Rome and because they practiced human sacrifice, but Roman law also restricted the practice of even licit and state-sponsored religions, like the cult of the Magna Mater, whose priests were permitted to roam the streets only on a designated holiday. Since the priests were eunuchs, Roman citizens were forbidden to be priests. On the positive side, the cult of the emperors was more or less mandatory.
The Greeks, because of their political fragmentation, were a good deal more open-minded, but the Athenians spent the allies’ tribute on the cult of Athena and, if we believe the story, put Aeschylus on trial on the charge that he had revealed the secrets of the Eleusinian Mysteries in a play. The poet defended himself by proving he was not an initiate. And we have the certain story that young Athenians who parodied the Mysteries and mutilated herms (busts of Hermes found on the streets) were put on trial for their lives. Most famously, there was the trial of Socrates. Doubtless it was politically motivated, but two of the charges had to do with religion: atheism and introducing new gods. (Yes, as Socrates pointed out, these charges are self-contradictory, but understandable since Socrates’ “gods” were quite unlike anything the Greeks had worshipped.) They did accept foreign gods, though they were perhaps less pervasive than the alien deities at Rome.
If we were to turn to Egypt or Babylon, we would find a similar pattern of restricted tolerance: a plurality of gods, a willingness to incorporate alien gods into the local pantheon, and, especially in times of stress, a willingness to restrict or persecute strange cults.
To understand this and to apply more general conclusions to our own circumstances, we have to know what we mean by religion (and by state). We think, often, of religion as an individual thing or private belief and speak of faith and religion as if they were the same thing. But ancient religion was less a matter of believing—though there was often strong belief—than of public practice. When the Greeks say they “believe the gods” (nomizein tous theous), what they meant was that they did what other good citizens did on the feast days of the different gods, particularly the days on which they propitiated or helped the god(s) who preserved the city. It is no accident that Athena, who as Athena Polias preserves and defends the city, is the deity to which there were probably the most temples. To refuse to take part in the Pathenaic festival was to betray the city.
But there were many other cults with social significance. Some involved honor paid to dead relatives or opening the new wine; others brought the city together in the liturgical dramas we call tragedies. It is not that Greeks did not develop personal convictions about the gods. Philosophers criticized the Homeric depictions as crude and blasphemous, while others, like Pythagoras, Parmenides, Empedocles, and Plato might rightly be called theologians, but, for most Greeks down to and after the Roman conquest, it was the gods of the city who mattered most, and even a skeptic or atheist like Epicurus told his disciples to go through the motions if only to avoid trouble.
If we had nothing but this topic to consider, we might do an anthropological survey of African and New World religions, but we should reach the same conclusion. That religion has less to do with private belief than public, collective worship that is partly aimed at public safety. Even the word religion tells us this. For the Romans, religio was a binding duty to stay right with divine powers, whose will and approval had to be sought for all important enterprises. This entailed the practice of augury and divination of various kinds and then the carrying out of the appropriate sacrifices. I forget how many hundreds of oxen Aemilius Paulus had to sacrifice before receiving divine approval to attack at Pydna. The counter-example, is the Claudius Pulcher who, when the sacred chickens would not fly before a naval battle, hurled their cage into the sea, saying, “If they won’t fly then let them swim.” The Carthaginians won.
We can continue this discussion with Christian examples. [To be continued]