The Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism
by Franz Cumont
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Transcriber's note: A few typographical errors have been corrected: they are listed at the end of the text.

Some short Greek renderings in the main text were printed as page footnotes. To avoid confusion with the links to the scholarly notes, these have been moved to parentheses next to the English renderings.

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The Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism


Franz Cumont

With an Introductory Essay by Grant Showerman

Authorized Translation

Chicago The Open Court Publishing Company

London Agents Kegan Paul, Trench, Truebner & Co.


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INTRODUCTION.—The Significance of Franz Cumont's Work, By Grant Showerman ... v

PREFACE ... xv



Superiority of the Orient, 1.—Its Influence on Political Institutions, 3.—Its Influence on Civil Law, 5.—Its Influence on Science, 6.—Its Influence on Literature and Art, 7.—Its Influence on Industry, 9.—SOURCES: Destruction of Pagan Rituals, 11.—Mythographers, 12.—Historians, 13.—Satirists, 13.—Philosophers, 14.—Christian Polemicists, 15.—Archeological Documents, 16.


Difference in the Religions of the Orient and the Occident, 20.—Spread of Oriental Religions, 22.—Economic Influences, 23.—Theory of Degeneration, 25.—Conversions are of Individuals, 27.—Appeal of the Oriental Religions to the Senses, 28.—Appeal to the Intelligence, 31.—Appeal to the Conscience, 35.—Inadequacy of the Roman Religion, 35.—Skepticism, 37.—Imperial Power, 38.—The Purification of Souls, 39.—Hope of Immortality, 42.—Conclusion, 43.


Arrival of Cybele at Rome, 46.—Her Religion in Asia Minor, 47.—Religion at Rome under the Republic, 51.—Adoption of the Goddess Ma-Bellona, 53.—Politics of Claudius, 55.—Spring Festival, 56.—Spread of the Phrygian Religion in the Provinces, 57.—Causes of Its Success, 58.—Its Official Recognition, 60.—ARRIVAL OF OTHER CULTS: Men, 61.—Judaism, 63.—Sabazius, 64.—Anahita, 65.—The Taurobolium, 66.—Philosophy, 70.—Christianity, 70.—Conclusion, 71.

IV. EGYPT ... 73

Foundation of Serapis Worship, 73.—The Egyptian Religion Hellenized, 75.—Diffusion in Greece, 79.—Adoption at Rome, 80.—Persecutions, 82.—Adoption Under Caligula, 84.—Its History, 85.—Its Transformation, 86.—Uncertainty in Egyptian Theology, 87.—Insufficiency of Its Ethics, 90.—Power of Its Ritual, 93.—Daily Liturgy, 95.—Festivals, 97.—Doctrine of Immortality, 99.—The Refrigerium, 101.

{iv} V. SYRIA ... 103

The Syrian Goddess, 103.—Importation of New Gods by Syrian Slaves, 105.—Syrian Merchants, 107.—Syrian Soldiers, 112.—Heliogabalus and Aurelian, 114.—Value of Semitic Paganism, 115.—Animal Worship, 116.—Baals, 118.—Human Sacrifice, 119.—Transformation of the Sacerdotal Religion, 120.—Purity, 121.—Influence of Babylon, 122.—Eschatology, 125.—THEOLOGY: God is Supreme, 127.—God is Omnipotent, 129.—God is Eternal and Universal, 130.—Semitic Syncretism, 131.—Solar Henotheism, 133.

VI. PERSIA ... 135

Persia and Europe, 135.—Influence of the Achemenides, 136.—Influence of Mazdaism, 138.—Conquests of Rome, 139.—Influence of the Sassanides, 140.—Origin of the Mysteries of Mithra, 142.—Persians in Asia Minor, 144.—The Mazdaism of Anatolia, 146.—Its Diffusion in the Occident, 149.—Its Qualities, 150.—Dualism, 151.—The Ethics of Mithraism, 155.—The Future Life, 158.—Conclusion, 159.


Prestige of Astrology, 162.—Its Introduction in the Occident, 163.—Astrology Under the Empire, 164.—Polemics Powerless Against Astrology, 166.—Astrology a Scientific Religion, 169.—The Primitive Idea of Sympathy, 171.—Divinity of the Stars, 172.—Transformation of the Idea of God, 174.—New Gods, 175.—Big Years, 176.—Astrological Eschatology, 177.—Man's Relation to Heaven, 178.—Fatalism, 179.—Efficacy of Prayer, 180.—Efficacy of Magic, 182.—Treatises on Magic, 182.—Idea of Sympathy, 183.—Magic a Science, 184.—Magic is Religious, 185.—Ancient Italian Sorcery, 186.—Egypt and Chaldea, 187.—Theurgy, 188.—Persian Magic, 189.—Persecutions, 191.—Conclusion, 193.


Paganism Before Constantine, 196.—Religion of Asia Minor, 197.—Religion of Egypt and Syria, 198.—Religion of Persia, 199.—Many Pagan Religions, 200.—Popular Religion and Philosophy, 201.—Christian Polemics, 202.—Roman Paganism Become Oriental, 204.—Mysteries, 205.—Nature Worship, 206.—Supreme God, 207.—Sidereal Worship, 208.—The Ritual Given a Moral Significance, 209.—The End of the World, 209.—Conclusion, 210.

NOTES ... 213

Preface, 213.—I. Rome and the Orient, 214,—II. Why the Oriental Religions Spread, 218.—III. Asia Minor, 223.—IV. Egypt, 228.—V. Syria, 241.—VI. Persia, 260.—VII. Astrology and Magic, 270.—VIII. The Transformation of Paganism, 281.

INDEX ... 289

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Franz Cumont, born January 3, 1868, and educated at Ghent, Bonn, Berlin, and Paris, resides in Brussels, and has been Professor in the University of Ghent since 1892. His monumental work, Textes et monuments figures relatifs aux mysteres de Mithra, published in 1896 and 1899 in two volumes, was followed in 1902 by the separate publication, under the title Les Mysteres de Mithra, of the second half of Vol. I, the Conclusions in which he interpreted the great mass of evidence contained in the remainder of the work. The year following, this book appeared in the translation of Thomas J. McCormack as The Mysteries of Mithra, published by the Open Court Publishing Company. M. Cumont's other work of prime interest to students of the ancient faiths, Les religions orientales dans le paganisme romain, appeared in 1906, was revised and issued in a second edition in 1909, and is now presented in English in the following pages.

M. Cumont is an ideal contributor to knowledge in his chosen field. As an investigator, he combines in one person Teutonic thoroughness and Gallic intuition. As a writer, his virtues are no less pronounced. Recognition of his mastery of an enormous array of detailed learning followed immediately on the publication {vi} of Textes et monuments, and the present series of essays, besides a numerous series of articles and monographs, makes manifest the same painstaking and thorough scholarship; but he is something more than the mere savant who has at command a vast and difficult body of knowledge. He is also the literary architect who builds up his material into well-ordered and graceful structure.

Above all, M. Cumont is an interpreter. In The Mysteries of Mithra he put into circulation, so to speak, the coin of the ideas he had minted in the patient and careful study of Textes et Monuments; and in the studies of The Oriental Religions he is giving to the wider public the interpretation of the larger and more comprehensive body of knowledge of which his acquaintance with the religion of Mithra is only a part, and against which as a background it stands. What his book The Mysteries of Mithra is to his special knowledge of Mithraism, The Oriental Religions is to his knowledge of the whole field. He is thus an example of the highest type of scholar—the exhaustive searcher after evidence, and the sympathetic interpreter who mediates between his subject and the lay intellectual life of his time.

And yet, admirable as is M. Cumont's presentation in The Mysteries of Mithra and The Oriental Religions, nothing is a greater mistake than to suppose that his popularizations are facile reading. The few specialists in ancient religions may indeed sail smoothly in the current of his thought; but the very nature of a subject which ramifies so extensively and so intricately into the whole of ancient life, concerning itself with practically all the manifestations of ancient {vii} civilization—philosophy, religion, astrology, magic, mythology, literature, art, war, commerce, government—will of necessity afford some obstacle to readers unfamiliar with the study of religion.

It is in the hope of lessening somewhat this natural difficulty of assimilating M. Cumont's contribution to knowledge, and above all, to life, that these brief words of introduction are undertaken. The presentation in outline of the main lines of thought which underlie his conception of the importance of the Oriental religions in universal history may afford the uninitiated reader a background against which the author's depiction of the various cults of the Oriental group will be more easily and clearly seen.

M. Cumont's work, then, transports us in imagination to a time when Christianity was still—at least in the eyes of Roman pagans—only one of a numerous array of foreign Eastern religions struggling for recognition in the Roman world, and especially in the city of Rome. To understand the conditions under which the new faith finally triumphed, we should first realize the number of these religions, and the apparently chaotic condition of paganism when viewed as a system.

"Let us suppose," says M. Cumont, "that in modern Europe the faithful had deserted the Christian churches to worship Allah or Brahma, to follow the precepts of Confucius or Buddha, or to adopt the maxims of the Shinto; let us imagine a great confusion of all the races of the world in which Arabian mullahs, Chinese scholars, Japanese bonzes, Tibetan lamas and Hindu pundits should all be preaching fatalism and {viii} predestination, ancestor-worship and devotion to a deified sovereign, pessimism and deliverance through annihilation—a confusion in which all those priests should erect temples of exotic architecture in our cities and celebrate their disparate rites therein. Such a dream, which the future may perhaps realize, would offer a pretty accurate picture of the religious chaos in which the ancient world was struggling before the reign of Constantine."

But it is no less necessary to realize, in the second place, that, had there not been an essential solidarity of all these different faiths, the triumph of Christianity would have been achieved with much less difficulty and in much less time. We are not to suppose that religions are long-lived and tenacious unless they possess something vital which enables them to resist. In his chapter on "The Transformation of Roman Paganism," M. Cumont thus accounts for the vitality of the old faiths: "The mass of religions at Rome finally became so impregnated by neo-Platonism and Orientalism that paganism may be called a single religion with a fairly distinct theology, whose doctrines were somewhat as follows: adoration of the elements, especially the cosmic bodies; the reign of one God, eternal and omnipotent, with messenger attendants; spiritual interpretation of the gross rites yet surviving from primitive times; assurance of eternal felicity to the faithful; belief that the soul was on earth to be proved before its final return to the universal spirit, of which it was a spark; the existence of an abysmal abode for the evil, against whom the faithful must keep up an unceasing struggle; the destruction of the universe, {ix} the death of the wicked, and the eternal happiness of the good in a reconstructed world."[1]

If this formulation of pagan doctrine surprises those who have been told that paganism was "a fashion rather than a faith," and are accustomed to think of it in terms of Jupiter and Juno, Venus and Mars, and the other empty, cold, and formalized deities that have so long filled literature and art, it will be because they have failed to take into account that between Augustus and Constantine three hundred years elapsed, and are unfamiliar with the very natural fact that during all that long period the character of paganism was gradually undergoing change and growth. "The faith of the friends of Symmachus," M. Cumont tells us, "was much farther removed from the religious ideal of Augustus, although they would never have admitted it, than that of their opponents in the senate."

To what was due this change in the content of the pagan ideal, so great that the phraseology in which the ideal is described puts us in mind of Christian doctrine itself? First, answers M. Cumont, to neo-Platonism, which attempted the reconciliation of the antiquated religions with the advanced moral and intellectual ideas of its own time by spiritual interpretation of outgrown cult stories and cult practices. A second and more vital cause, however, wrought to bring about the same result. This was the invasion of the Oriental religions, and the slow working, from the advent of the Great Mother of the Gods in B. C. 204 to the downfall of paganism at the end of the fourth {x} century of the Christian era, of the leaven of Oriental sentiment. The cults of Asia and Egypt bridged the gap between the old religions and Christianity, and in such a way as to make the triumph of Christianity an evolution, not a revolution. The Great Mother and Attis, with self-consecration, enthusiasm, and asceticism; Isis and Serapis, with the ideals of communion and purification; Baal, the omnipotent dweller in the far-off heavens; Jehovah, the jealous God of the Hebrews, omniscient and omnipresent; Mithra, deity of the sun, with the Persian dualism of good and evil, and with after-death rewards and punishments—all these, and more, flowed successively into the channel of Roman life and mingled their waters to form the late Roman paganism which proved so pertinacious a foe to the Christian religion. The influence that underlay their pretensions was so real that there is some warrant for the view of Renan that at one time it was doubtful whether the current as it flowed away into the Dark Ages should be Mithraic or Christian.

The vitalization of the evidence regarding these cults is M. Cumont's great contribution. His perseverance in the accurate collection of material is equalled only by his power to see the real nature and effect of the religions of which he writes. Assuming that no religion can succeed merely because of externals, but must stand on some foundation of moral excellence, he shows how the pagan faiths were able to hold their own, and even to contest the ground with Christianity. These religions, he asserts, gave greater satisfaction first, to the senses and passions, secondly, to the intelligence, finally, and above all, to the conscience. "The spread of the Oriental religions"—again I quote {xi} a summary from Classical Philology—"was due to merit. In contrast to the cold and formal religions of Rome, the Oriental faiths, with their hoary traditions and basis of science and culture, their fine ceremonial, the excitement attendant on their mysteries, their deities with hearts of compassion, their cultivation of the social bond, their appeal to conscience and their promises of purification and reward in a future life, were personal rather than civic, and satisfied the individual soul.... With such a conception of latter-day paganism, we may more easily understand its strength and the bitter rivalry between it and the new faith, as well as the facility with which pagan society, once its cause was proved hopeless, turned to Christianity." The Oriental religions had made straight the way. Christianity triumphed after long conflict because its antagonists also were not without weapons from the armory of God. Both parties to the struggle had their loins girt about with truth, and both wielded the sword of the spirit; but the steel of the Christian was the more piercing, the breastplate of his righteousness was the stronger, and his feet were better shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace.

Nor did Christianity stop there. It took from its opponents their own weapons, and used them; the better elements of paganism were transferred to the new religion. "As the religious history of the empire is studied more closely," writes M. Cumont, "the triumph of the church will, in our opinion, appear more and more as the culmination of a long evolution of beliefs. We can understand the Christianity of the fifth century with its greatness and weaknesses, its spiritual exaltation and its puerile superstitions, if we {xii} know the moral antecedents of the world in which it developed."

M. Cumont is therefore a contributor to our appreciation of the continuity of history. Christianity was not a sudden and miraculous transformation, but a composite of slow and laborious growth. Its four centuries of struggle were not a struggle against an entirely unworthy religion, else would our faith in its divine warrant be diminished; it is to its own great credit, and also to the credit of the opponents that succumbed to it, that it finally overwhelmed them. To quote Emil Aust: "Christianity did not wake into being the religious sense, but it afforded that sense the fullest opportunity of being satisfied; and paganism fell because the less perfect must give place to the more perfect, not because it was sunken in sin and vice. It had out of its own strength laid out the ways by which it advanced to lose itself in the arms of Christianity, and to recognize this does not mean to minimize the significance of Christianity. We are under no necessity of artificially darkening the heathen world; the light of the Evangel streams into it brightly enough without this."[2]

Finally, the work of M. Cumont and others in the field of the ancient Oriental religions is not an isolated activity, but part of a larger intellectual movement. Their effort is only one manifestation of the interest of recent years in the study of universal religion; other manifestations of the same interest are to be seen in the histories of the Greek and Roman religions by {xiii} Gruppe, Farnell, and Wissowa, in the anthropological labors of Tylor, Lang, and Frazer, in the publication of Reinach's Orpheus, in the study of comparative religion, and in such a phenomenon as a World's Parliament of Religions.

In a word, M. Cumont and his companion ancient Orientalists are but one brigade engaged in the modern campaign for the liberation of religious thought. His studies are therefore not concerned alone with paganism, nor alone with the religions of the ancient past; in common with the labors of students of modern religion, they touch our own faith and our own times, and are in vital relation with our philosophy of living, and consequently with our highest welfare. "To us moderns," says Professor Frazer in the preface to his Golden Bough, "a still wider vista is vouchsafed, a greater panorama is unrolled by the study which aims at bringing home to us the faith and the practice, the hopes and the ideals, not of two highly gifted races only, but of all mankind, and thus at enabling us to follow the long march, the slow and toilsome ascent, of humanity from savagery to civilization.... But the comparative study of the beliefs and institutions of mankind is fitted to be much more than a means of satisfying an enlightened curiosity and of furnishing materials for the researches of the learned. Well handled, it may become a powerful instrument to expedite progress...."

It is possible that all this might disquiet the minds of those who have been wont to assume perfection in the primitive Christian church, and who assume also that present-day Christianity is the ultimate form of the Christian religion. Such persons—if there are {xiv} such—should rather take heart from the whole-souled devotion to truth everywhere to be seen in the works of scholars in ancient religion, and from their equally evident sympathy with all manifestations of human effort to establish the divine relation; but most of all from their universal testimony that for all time and in all places and under all conditions the human heart has felt powerfully the need of the divine relation. From the knowledge that the desire to get right with God—the common and essential element in all religions—has been the most universal and the most potent and persistent factor in past history, it is not far to the conviction that it will always continue to be so, and that the struggle toward the divine light of religion pure and undefiled will never perish from the earth.



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Notes to Introduction.

[1] This summary of M. Cumont's chapter is quoted from my review of the first edition of Les religions orientales in Classical Philology, III, 4, p. 467.

[2] Die Religion der Roemer, p. 116. For the significance of the pagan faiths, see an essay on "The Ancient Religions in Universal History," American Journal of Philology, XXIX, 2. pp. 156-171.

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In November, 1905, the College de France honored the writer by asking him to succeed M. Naville in opening the series of lectures instituted by the Michonis foundation. A few months later the "Hibbert Trust" invited him to Oxford to develop certain subjects which he had touched upon at Paris. In this volume have been collected the contents of both series with the addition of a short bibliography and notes intended for scholars desirous of verifying assertions made in the text.[1] The form of the work has scarcely been changed, but we trust that these pages, intended though they were for oral delivery, will bear reading, and that the title of these studies will not seem too ambitious for what they have to offer. The propagation of the Oriental religions, with the development of neo-Platonism, is the leading fact in the moral history of the pagan empire. May this small volume on a great subject throw at least some light upon this truth, and may the reader receive these essays with the same kind interest shown by the audiences at Paris and Oxford.

The reader will please remember that the different chapters were thought out and written as lectures. They do not claim to contain a debit and credit account of what the Latin paganism borrowed from or loaned to the Orient. Certain well-known facts have been {xvi} deliberately passed over in order to make room for others that are perhaps less known. We have taken liberties with our subject matter that would not be tolerated in a didactic treatise, but to which surely no one will object.

We are more likely to be reproached for an apparently serious omission. We have investigated only the internal development of paganism in the Latin world, and have considered its relation to Christianity only incidentally and by the way. The question is nevertheless important and has been the subject of celebrated lectures as well as of learned monographs and widely distributed manuals.[2] We wish to slight neither the interest nor the importance of that controversy, and it is not because it seemed negligible that we have not entered into it.

By reason of their intellectual bent and education the theologians were for a long time more inclined to consider the continuity of the Jewish tradition than the causes that disturbed it; but a reaction has taken place, and to-day they endeavor to show that the church has borrowed considerably from the conceptions and ritualistic ceremonies of the pagan mysteries. In spite of the prestige that surrounded Eleusis, the word "mysteries" calls up Hellenized Asia rather than Greece proper, because in the first place the earliest Christian communities were founded, formed and developed in the heart of Oriental populations, Semites, Phrygians and Egyptians. Moreover the religions of those people were much farther advanced, much richer in ideas and sentiments, more striking and stirring than the Greco-Latin anthropomorphism. Their liturgy always derives its inspiration from generally accepted beliefs {xvii} about purification embodied in certain acts regarded as sanctifying. These facts were almost identical in the various sects. The new faith poured its revelation into the hallowed moulds of earlier religions because in that form alone could the world in which it developed receive its message.

This is approximately the point of view adopted by the latest historians.

But, however absorbing this important problem may be, we could not think of going into it, even briefly, in these studies on Roman paganism. In the Latin world the question assumes much more modest proportions, and its aspect changes completely. Here Christianity spread only after it had outgrown the embryonic state and really became established. Moreover like Christianity the Oriental mysteries at Rome remained for a long time chiefly the religion of a foreign minority. Did any exchange take place between these rival sects? The silence of the ecclesiastical writers is not sufficient reason for denying it. We dislike to acknowledge a debt to our adversaries, because it means that we recognize some value in the cause they defend, but I believe that the importance of these exchanges should not be exaggerated. Without a doubt certain ceremonies and holidays of the church were based on pagan models. In the fourth century Christmas was placed on the 25th of December because on that date was celebrated the birth of the sun (Natalis Invicti) who was born to a new life each year after the solstice.[3] Certain vestiges of the religions of Isis and Cybele besides other polytheistic practices perpetuated themselves in the adoration of local saints. On the other hand as soon as Christianity became a moral power in {xviii} the world, it imposed itself even on its enemies. The Phrygian priests of the Great Mother openly opposed their celebration of the vernal equinox to the Christian Easter, and attributed to the blood shed in the taurobolium the redemptive power of the blood of the divine Lamb.[4]

All these facts constitute a series of very delicate problems of chronology and interrelation, and it would be rash to attempt to solve them en bloc. Probably there is a different answer in each particular case, and I am afraid that some cases must always remain unsolved. We may speak of "vespers of Isis" or of a "eucharist of Mithra and his companions," but only in the same sense as when we say "the vassal princes of the empire" or "Diocletian's socialism." These are tricks of style used to give prominence to a similarity and to establish a parallel strongly and closely. A word is not a demonstration, and we must be careful not to infer an influence from an analogy. Preconceived notions are always the most serious obstacles to an exact knowledge of the past. Some modern writers, like the ancient Church Fathers, are fain to see a sacrilegious parody inspired by the spirit of lies in the resemblance between the mysteries and the church ceremonies. Other historians seem disposed to agree with the Oriental priests, who claimed priority for their cults at Rome, and saw a plagiarism of their ancient rituals in the Christian ceremonies. It would appear that both are very much mistaken. Resemblance does not necessarily presuppose imitation, and frequently a similarity of ideas and practices must be explained by common origin, exclusive of any borrowing. {xix}

An illustration will make my thought clearer. The votaries of Mithra likened the practice of their religion to military service. When the neophyte joined he was compelled to take an oath (sacramentum) similar to the one required of recruits in the army, and there is no doubt that an indelible mark was likewise branded on his body with a hot iron. The third degree of the mystical hierarchy was that of "soldier" (miles). Thenceforward the initiate belonged to the sacred militia of the invincible god and fought the powers of evil under his orders. All these ideas and institutions are so much in accord with what we know of Mazdean dualism, in which the entire life was conceived as a struggle against the malevolent spirits; they are so inseparable from the history even of Mithraism, which always was a soldiers' religion, that we cannot doubt they belonged to it before its appearance in the Occident.

On the other hand, we find similar conceptions in Christianity. The society of the faithful—the term is still in use—is the "Church Militant." During the first centuries the comparison of the church with an army was carried out even in details;[5] the baptism of the neophyte was the oath of fidelity to the flag taken by the recruits. Christ was the "emperor," the commander-in-chief, of his disciples, who formed cohorts triumphing under his command over the demons; the apostates were deserters; the sanctuaries, camps; the pious practices, drills and sentry-duty, and so on.

If we consider that the gospel preached peace, that for a long time the Christians felt a repugnance to military service, where their faith was threatened, we are tempted to admit a priori an influence of the belligerent cult of Mithra upon Christian thought. {xx}

But this is not the case. The theme of the militia Christi appears in the oldest ecclesiastical authors, in the epistles of St. Clement and even in those of St. Paul. It is impossible to admit an imitation of the Mithraic mysteries then, because at that period they had no importance whatever.

But if we extend our researches to the history of that notion, we shall find that, at least under the empire, the mystics of Isis were also regarded as forming sacred cohorts enlisted in the service of the goddess, that previously in the Stoic philosophy human existence was frequently likened to a campaign, and that even the astrologers called the man who submitted to destiny and renounced all revolt a "soldier of fate."[6]

This conception of life, especially of religious life, was therefore very popular from the beginning of our era. It was manifestly prior both to Christianity and to Mithraism. It developed in the military monarchies of the Asiatic Diadochi. Here the soldier was no longer a citizen defending his country, but in most instances a volunteer bound by a sacred vow to the person of his king. In the martial states that fought for the heritage of the Achemenides this personal devotion dominated or displaced all national feeling. We know the oaths taken by those subjects to their deified kings.[7] They agreed to defend and uphold them even at the cost of their own lives, and always to have the same friends and the same enemies as they; they dedicated to them not only their actions and words, but their very thoughts. Their duty was a complete abandonment of their personality in favor of those monarchs who were held the equals of the gods. The sacred militia of the mysteries was nothing but this civic {xxi} morality viewed from the religious standpoint. It confounded loyalty with piety.

As we see, the researches into the doctrines or practices common to Christianity and the Oriental mysteries lead almost always beyond the limits of the Roman empire into the Hellenistic Orient. The religious conceptions which imposed themselves on Latin Europe under the Caesars[8] were developed there, and it is there we must look for the key to enigmas still unsolved. It is true that at present nothing is more obscure than the history of the religions that arose in Asia when Greek culture came in contact with barbarian theology. It is rarely possible to formulate satisfactory conclusions with any degree of certainty, and before further discoveries are made we shall frequently be compelled to weigh contrasting probabilities. We must frequently throw out the sounding line into the shifting sea of possibility in order to find secure anchorage. But at any rate we perceive with sufficient distinctness the direction in which the investigations must be pursued.

It is our belief that the main point to be cleared up is the composite religion of those Jewish or Jewish-pagan communities, the worshipers of Hypsistos, the Sabbatists, the Sabaziasts and others in which the new creed took root during the apostolic age. In those communities the Mosaic law had become adapted to the sacred usages of the Gentiles even before the beginning of our era, and monotheism had made concessions to idolatry. Many beliefs of the ancient Orient, as for instance the ideas of Persian dualism regarding the infernal world, arrived in Europe by two roads, the more or less orthodox Judaism of the communities of {xxii} the dispersion in which the gospel was accepted immediately, and the pagan mysteries imported from Syria or Asia Minor. Certain similarities that surprised and shocked the apologists will cease to look strange as soon as we reach the distant sources of the channels that reunited at Rome.

But these delicate and complicated researches into origins and relationships belong especially to the history of the Alexandrian period. In considering the Roman empire, the principal fact is that the Oriental religions propagated doctrines, previous to and later side by side with Christianity, that acquired with it universal authority at the decline of the ancient world. The preaching of the Asiatic priests also unwittingly prepared for the triumph of the church which put its stamp on the work at which they had unconsciously labored.

Through their popular propaganda they had completely disintegrated the ancient national faith of the Romans, while at the same time the Caesars had gradually destroyed the political particularism. After their advent it was no longer necessary for religion to be connected with a state in order to become universal. Religion was no longer regarded as a public duty, but as a personal obligation; no longer did it subordinate the individual to the city-state, but pretended above all to assure his welfare in this world and especially in the world to come. The Oriental mysteries offered their votaries radiant perspectives of eternal happiness. Thus the focus of morality was changed. The aim became to realize the sovereign good in the life hereafter instead of in this world, as the Greek philosophy had done. No longer did man act in view of tangible {xxiii} realities, but to attain ideal hopes. Existence in this life was regarded as a preparation for a sanctified life, as a trial whose outcome was to be either everlasting happiness or everlasting pain.

As we see, the entire system of ethical values was overturned.

The salvation of the soul, which had become the one great human care, was especially promised in these mysteries upon the accurate performance of the sacred ceremonies. The rites possessed a power of purification and redemption. They made man better and freed him from the dominion of hostile spirits. Consequently, religion was a singularly important and absorbing matter, and the liturgy could be performed only by a clergy devoting itself entirely to the task. The Asiatic gods exacted undivided service; their priests were no longer magistrates, scarcely citizens. They devoted themselves unreservedly to their ministry, and demanded of their adherents submission to their sacred authority.

All these features that we are but sketching here, gave the Oriental religions a resemblance to Christianity, and the reader of these studies will find many more points in common among them. These analogies are even more striking to us than they were in those times because we have become acquainted in India and China with religions very different from the Roman paganism and from Christianity as well, and because the relationships of the two latter strike us more strongly on account of the contrast. These theological similarities did not attract the attention of the ancients, because they scarcely conceived of the existence of other possibilities, while differences were what they {xxiv} remarked especially. I am not at all forgetting how considerable these were. The principal divergence was that Christianity, by placing God in an ideal sphere beyond the confines of this world, endeavored to rid itself of every attachment to a frequently abject polytheism. But even if we oppose tradition, we cannot break with the past that has formed us, nor separate ourselves from the present in which we live. As the religious history of the empire is studied more closely, the triumph of the church will, in our opinion, appear more and more as the culmination of a long evolution of beliefs. We can understand the Christianity of the fifth century with its greatness and weaknesses, its spiritual exaltation and its puerile superstitions, if we know the moral antecedents of the world in which it developed. The faith of the friends of Symmachus was much farther removed from the religious ideal of Augustus, although they would never have admitted it, than that of their opponents in the senate. I hope that these studies will succeed in showing how the pagan religions from the Orient aided the long continued effort of Roman society, contented for many centuries with a rather insipid idolatry, toward more elevated and more profound forms of worship. Possibly their credulous mysticism deserves as much blame as is laid upon the theurgy of neo-Platonism, which drew from the same sources of inspiration, but like neo-Platonism it has strengthened man's feeling of eminent dignity by asserting the divine nature of the soul. By making inner purity the main object of earthly existence, they refined and exalted the psychic life and gave it an almost supernatural intensity, which until then was unknown in the ancient world. {xxv}


In this second edition the eight lectures forming the reading matter of this book have suffered scarcely any change, and, excepting the chapter on Syria, the additions are insignificant. It would have been an easy matter to expand them, but I did not want these lectures to become erudite dissertations, nor the ideas which are the essential part of a sketch like the present to be overwhelmed by a multiplicity of facts. In general I have therefore limited myself to weeding out certain errors that were overlooked, or introduced, in the proofreading.

The notes, however, have been radically revised. I have endeavored to give expression to the suggestions or observations communicated to me by obliging readers; to mention new publications and to utilize the results of my own studies. The index makes it easy to find the subjects discussed.

And here I must again thank my friend Charles Michel, who undertook the tedious task of rereading the proofs of this book, and whose scrupulous and sagacious care has saved me from many and many a blunder.

F. C.

PARIS, FRANCE, February, 1909.

* * * * *



We are fond of regarding ourselves as the heirs of Rome, and we like to think that the Latin genius, after having absorbed the genius of Greece, held an intellectual and moral supremacy in the ancient world similar to the one Europe now maintains, and that the culture of the peoples that lived under the authority of the Caesars was stamped forever by their strong touch. It is difficult to forget the present entirely and to renounce aristocratic pretensions. We find it hard to believe that the Orient has not always lived, to some extent, in the state of humiliation from which it is now slowly emerging, and we are inclined to ascribe to the ancient inhabitants of Smyrna, Beirut or Alexandria the faults with which the Levantines of to-day are being reproached. The growing influence of the Orientals that accompanied the decline of the empire has frequently been considered a morbid phenomenon and a symptom of the slow decomposition of the ancient world. Even Renan does not seem to have been sufficiently free from an old prejudice when he wrote on this subject:[1] "That the oldest and most worn out civilization should by its corruption subjugate the younger was inevitable."

But if we calmly consider the real facts, avoiding the optical illusion that makes things in our immediate {2} vicinity look larger, we shall form a quite different opinion. It is beyond all dispute that Rome found the point of support of its military power in the Occident. The legions from the Danube and the Rhine were always braver, stronger and better disciplined than those from the Euphrates and the Nile. But it is in the Orient, especially in these countries of "old civilization," that we must look for industry and riches, for technical ability and artistic productions, as well as for intelligence and science, even before Constantine made it the center of political power.

While Greece merely vegetated in a state of poverty, humiliation and exhaustion; while Italy suffered depopulation and became unable to provide for her own support; while the other countries of Europe were hardly out of barbarism; Asia Minor, Egypt and Syria gathered the rich harvests Roman peace made possible. Their industrial centers cultivated and renewed all the traditions that had caused their former celebrity. A more intense intellectual life corresponded with the economic activity of these great manufacturing and exporting countries. They excelled in every profession except that of arms, and even the prejudiced Romans admitted their superiority. The menace of an Oriental empire haunted the imaginations of the first masters of the world. Such an empire seems to have been the main thought of the dictator Caesar, and the triumvir Antony almost realized it. Even Nero thought of making Alexandria his capital. Although Rome, supported by her army and the right of might, retained the political authority for a long time, she bowed to the fatal moral ascendency of more advanced peoples. Viewed from this standpoint the history of the empire {3} during the first three centuries may be summarized as a "peaceful infiltration" of the Orient into the Occident.[2] This truth has become evident since the various aspects of Roman civilization are being studied in greater detail; and before broaching the special subject of these studies we wish to review a few phases of the slow metamorphosis of which the propagation of the Oriental religions was one phenomenon.

In the first place the imitation of the Orient showed itself plainly in political institutions.[3] To be convinced of this fact it is sufficient to compare the government of the empire in the time of Augustus with what it had become under Diocletian. At the beginning of the imperial regime Rome ruled the world but did not govern it. She kept the number of her functionaries down to a minimum, her provinces were mere unorganized aggregates of cities where she only exercised police power, protectorates rather than annexed countries.[4] As long as law and order were maintained and her citizens, functionaries and merchants could transact their business, Rome was satisfied. She saved herself the trouble of looking after the public service by leaving broad authority to the cities that had existed before her domination, or had been modeled after her. The taxes were levied by syndicates of bankers and the public lands rented out. Before the reforms instituted by Augustus, even the army was not an organic and permanent force, but consisted theoretically of troops levied before a war and discharged after victory.

Rome's institutions remained those of a city. It was difficult to apply them to the vast territory she attempted to govern with their aid. They were a clumsy {4} apparatus that worked only by sudden starts, a rudimentary system that could not and did not last.

What do we find three centuries later? A strongly centralized state in which an absolute ruler, worshiped like a god and surrounded by a large court, commanded a whole hierarchy of functionaries; cities divested of their local liberties and ruled by an omnipotent bureaucracy, the old capital herself the first to be dispossessed of her autonomy and subjected to prefects. Outside of the cities the monarch, whose private fortune was identical with the state finances, possessed immense domains managed by intendants and supporting a population of serf-colonists. The army was composed largely of foreign mercenaries, professional soldiers whose pay or bounty consisted of lands on which they settled. All these features and many others caused the Roman empire to assume the likeness of ancient Oriental monarchies.

It would be impossible to admit that like causes produce like results, and then maintain that a similarity is not sufficient proof of an influence in history. Wherever we can closely follow the successive transformations of a particular institution, we notice the action of the Orient and especially of Egypt. When Rome had become a great cosmopolitan metropolis like Alexandria, Augustus reorganized it in imitation of the capital of the Ptolemies. The fiscal reforms of the Caesars like the taxes on sales and inheritances, the register of land surveys and the direct collection of taxes, were suggested by the very perfect financial system of the Lagides,[5] and it can be maintained that their government was the first source from which those of modern Europe were derived, through the medium {5} of the Romans. The imperial saltus, superintended by a procurator and cultivated by metayers reduced to the state of serfs, was an imitation of the ones that the Asiatic potentates formerly cultivated through their agents.[6] It would be easy to increase this list of examples. The absolute monarchy, theocratic and bureaucratic at the same time, that was the form of government of Egypt, Syria and even Asia Minor during the Alexandrine period was the ideal on which the deified Caesars gradually fashioned the Roman empire.

One cannot however deny Rome the glory of having elaborated a system of private law that was logically deduced from clearly formulated principles and was destined to become the fundamental law of all civilized communities. But even in connection with this private law, where the originality of Rome is uncontested and her preeminence absolute, recent researches have shown with how much tenacity the Hellenized Orient maintained its old legal codes, and how much resistance local customs, the woof of the life of nations, offered to unification. In truth, unification never was realized except in theory.[7] More than that, these researches have proved that the fertile principles of that provincial law, which was sometimes on a higher moral plane than the Roman law, reacted on the progressive transformation of the old ius civile. And how could it be otherwise? Were not a great number of famous jurists like Ulpian of Tyre and Papinian of Hemesa natives of Syria? And did not the law-school of Beirut constantly grow in importance after the third century, until during the fifth century it became the most brilliant center of legal education? Thus Levantines {6} cultivated even the patrimonial field cleared by Scaevola and Labeo.[8]

In the austere temple of law the Orient held as yet only a minor position; everywhere else its authority was predominant. The practical mind of the Romans, which made them excellent lawyers, prevented them from becoming great scholars. They esteemed pure science but little, having small talent for it, and one notices that it ceased to be earnestly cultivated wherever their direct domination was established. The great astronomers, mathematicians, and physicians, like the originators or defenders of the great metaphysical systems, were mostly Orientals. Ptolemy and Plotinus were Egyptians, Porphyry and Iamblichus, Syrians, Dioscorides and Galen, Asiatics. All branches of learning were affected by the spirit of the Orient. The clearest minds accepted the chimeras of astrology and magic. Philosophy claimed more and more to derive its inspiration from the fabulous wisdom of Chaldea and Egypt. Tired of seeking truth, reason abdicated and hoped to find it in a revelation preserved in the mysteries of the barbarians. Greek logic strove to coordinate into an harmonious whole the confused traditions of the Asiatic religions.

Letters, as well as science, were cultivated chiefly by the Orientals. Attention has often been called to the fact that those men of letters that were considered the purest representatives of the Greek spirit under the empire belonged almost without exception to Asia Minor, Syria or Egypt. The rhetorician Dion Chrysostom came from Prusa in Bithynia, the satirist Lucian from Samosata in Commagene on the borders of the Euphrates. A number of other names could be cited. {7} From Tacitus and Suetonius down to Ammianus, there was not one author of talent to preserve in Latin the memory of the events that stirred the world of that period, but it was a Bithynian again, Dion Cassius of Nicea, who, under the Severi, narrated the history of the Roman people.

It is a characteristic fact that, besides this literature whose language was Greek, others were born, revived and developed. The Syriac, derived from the Aramaic which was the international language of earlier Asia, became again the language of a cultured race with Bardesanes of Edessa. The Copts remembered that they had spoken several dialects derived from the ancient Egyptian and endeavored to revive them. North of the Taurus even the Armenians began to write and polish their barbarian speech. Christian preaching, addressed to the people, took hold of the popular idioms and roused them from their long lethargy. Along the Nile as well as on the plains of Mesopotamia or in the valleys of Anatolia it proclaimed its new ideas in dialects that had been despised hitherto, and wherever the old Orient had not been entirely denationalized by Hellenism, it successfully reclaimed its intellectual autonomy.

A revival of native art went hand in hand with this linguistic awakening. In no field of intellect has the illusion mentioned above been so complete and lasting as in this one. Until a few years ago the opinion prevailed that an "imperial" art had come into existence in the Rome of Augustus and that thence its predominance had slowly spread to the periphery of the ancient world. If it had undergone some special modifications in Asia these were due to exotic influences, undoubtedly {8} Assyrian or Persian. Not even the important discoveries of M. de Voguee in Hauran[9] were sufficient to prove the emptiness of a theory that was supported by our lofty conviction of European leadership.

To-day it is fully proven not only that Rome has given nothing or almost nothing to the Orientals but also that she has received quite a little from them. Impregnated with Hellenism, Asia produced an astonishing number of original works of art in the kingdoms of the Diadochs. The old processes, the discovery of which dates back to the Chaldeans, the Hittites or the subjects of the Pharaohs, were first utilized by the conquerors of Alexander's empire who conceived a rich variety of new types, and created an original style. But if during the three centuries preceding our era, sovereign Greece played the part of the demiurge who creates living beings out of preexisting matter, during the three following centuries her productive power became exhausted, her faculty of invention weakened, the ancient local traditions revolted against her empire and with the help of Christianity overcame it. Transferred to Byzantium they expanded in a new efflorescence and spread over Europe where they paved the way for the formation of the Romanesque art of the early Middle Ages.[10]

Rome, then, far from having established her suzerainty, was tributary to the Orient in this respect. The Orient was her superior in the extent and precision of its technical knowledge as well as in the inventive genius and ability of its workmen. The Caesars were great builders but frequently employed foreign help. Trajan's principal architect, a magnificent builder, was a Syrian, Apollodorus of Damascus.[11] {9}

Her Levantine subjects not only taught Italy the artistic solution of architectonic problems like the erection of a cupola on a rectangular or octagonal edifice, but also compelled her to accept their taste, and they saturated her with their genius. They imparted to her their love of luxuriant decoration, and of violent polychromy, and they gave religious sculpture and painting the complicated symbolism that pleased their abstruse and subtle minds.

In those times art was closely connected with industry, which was entirely manual and individual. They learned from each other, they improved and declined together, in short they were inseparable. Shall we call the painters that decorated the architecturally fantastic and airy walls of Pompeii in Alexandrian or perhaps Syrian taste artisans or artists? And how shall we classify the goldsmiths, Alexandrians also, who carved those delicate leaves, those picturesque animals, those harmoniously elegant or cunningly animated groups that cover the phials and goblets of Bosco Reale? And descending from the productions of the industrial arts to those of industry itself, one might also trace the growing influence of the Orient; one might show how the action of the great manufacturing centers of the East gradually transformed the material civilization of Europe; one might point out how the introduction into Gaul[12] of exotic patterns and processes changed the old native industry and gave its products a perfection and a popularity hitherto unknown. But I dislike to insist overmuch on a point apparently so foreign to the one now before us. It was important however to mention this subject at the beginning because in whatever direction scholars of {10} to-day pursue their investigations they always notice Asiatic culture slowly supplanting that of Italy. The latter developed only by absorbing elements taken from the inexhaustible reserves of the "old civilizations" of which we spoke at the beginning. The Hellenized Orient imposed itself everywhere through its men and its works; it subjected its Latin conquerors to its ascendancy in the same manner as it dominated its Arabian conquerors later when it became the civilizer of Islam. But in no field of thought was its influence, under the empire, so decisive as in religion, because it finally brought about the complete destruction of the Greco-Latin paganism.[13]

The invasion of the barbarian religions was so open, so noisy and so triumphant that it could not remain unnoticed. It attracted the anxious or sympathetic attention of the ancient authors, and since the Renaissance modern scholars have frequently taken interest in it. Possibly however they did not sufficiently understand that this religious evolution was not an isolated and extraordinary phenomenon, but that it accompanied and aided a more general evolution, just as that aided it in turn. The transformation of beliefs was intimately connected with the establishment of the monarchy by divine right, the development of art, the prevailing philosophic tendencies, in fact with all the manifestations of thought, sentiment and taste.

We shall attempt to sketch this religious movement with its numerous and far-reaching ramifications. First we shall try to show what caused the diffusion of the Oriental religions. In the second place we shall examine those in particular that originated in Asia Minor, Egypt, Syria and Persia, and we shall endeavor to {11} distinguish their individual characteristics and estimate their value. We shall see, finally, how the ancient idolatry was transformed and what form it assumed in its last struggle against Christianity, whose victory was furthered by Asiatic mysteries, although they opposed its doctrine.

* * * * *

But before broaching this subject a preliminary question must be answered. Is the study which we have just outlined possible? What items will be of assistance to us in this undertaking? From what sources are we to derive our knowledge of the Oriental religions in the Roman empire?

It must be admitted that the sources are inadequate and have not as yet been sufficiently investigated.

Perhaps no loss caused by the general wreck of ancient literature has been more disastrous than that of the liturgic books of paganism. A few mystic formulas quoted incidentally by pagan or Christian authors and a few fragments of hymns in honor of the gods[14] are practically all that escaped destruction. In order to obtain an idea of what those lost rituals may have been one must turn to their imitations contained in the chorus of tragedies, and to the parodies comic authors sometimes made; or look up in books of magic the plagiarisms that writers of incantations may have committed.[15] But all this gives us only a dim reflection of the religious ceremonies. Shut out from the sanctuary like profane outsiders, we hear only the indistinct echo of the sacred songs and not even in imagination can we attend the celebration of the mysteries.

We do not know how the ancients prayed, we cannot penetrate into the intimacy of their religious life, {12} and certain depths of the soul of antiquity we must leave unsounded. If a fortunate windfall could give us possession of some sacred book of the later paganism its revelations would surprise the world. We could witness the performance of those mysterious dramas whose symbolic acts commemorated the passion of the gods; in company with the believers we could sympathize with their sufferings, lament their death and share in the joy of their return to life. In those vast collections of archaic rites that hazily perpetuated the memory of abolished creeds we would find traditional formulas couched in obsolete language that was scarcely understood, naive prayers conceived by the faith of the earliest ages, sanctified by the devotion of past centuries, and almost ennobled by the joys and sufferings of past generations. We would also read those hymns in which philosophic thought found expression in sumptuous allegories[16] or humbled itself before the omnipotence of the infinite, poems of which only a few stoic effusions celebrating the creative or destructive fire, or expressing a complete surrender to divine fate can give us some idea.[17]

But everything is gone, and thus we lose the possibility of studying from the original documents the internal development of the pagan religions.

We should feel this loss less keenly if we possessed at least the works of Greek and Latin mythographers on the subject of foreign divinities like the voluminous books published during the second century by Eusebius and Pallas on the Mysteries of Mithra. But those works were thought devoid of interest or even dangerous by the devout Middle Ages, and they are not likely to have survived the fall of paganism. The {13} treatises on mythology that have been preserved deal almost entirely with the ancient Hellenic fables made famous by the classic writers, to the neglect of the Oriental religions.[18]

As a rule, all we find in literature on this subject are a few incidental remarks and passing allusions. History is incredibly poor in that respect. This poverty of information was caused in the first place by a narrowness of view characteristic of the rhetoric cultivated by historians of the classical period and especially of the empire. Politics and the wars of the rulers, the dramas, the intrigues and even the gossip of the courts and of the official world were of much higher interest to them than the great economic or religious transformations. Moreover, there is no period of the Roman empire concerning which we are so little informed as the third century, precisely the one during which the Oriental religions reached the apogee of their power. From Herodianus and Dion Cassius to the Byzantines, and from Suetonius to Ammianus Marcellinus, all narratives of any importance have been lost, and this deplorable blank in historic tradition is particularly fatal to the study of paganism.

It is a strange fact that light literature concerned itself more with these grave questions. The rites of the exotic religions stimulated the imagination of the satirists, and the pomp of the festivities furnished the novelists with brilliant descriptive matter. Juvenal laughs at the mortifications of the devotees of Isis; in his Necromancy Lucian parodies the interminable purifications of the magi, and in the Metamorphoses Apuleius relates the various scenes of an initiation into the mysteries of Isis with the fervor of a neophyte and {14} the studied refinement of a rhetorician. But as a rule we find only incidental remarks and superficial observations in the authors. Not even the precious treatise On the Syrian Goddess, in which Lucian tells of a visit to the temple of Hierapolis and repeats his conversation with the priests, has any depth. What he relates is the impression of an intelligent, curious and above all an ironical traveler.[19]

In order to obtain a more perfect initiation and a less fragmentary insight into the doctrines taught by the Oriental religions, we are compelled to turn to two kinds of testimony, inspired by contrary tendencies, but equally suspicious: the testimony of the philosophers, and that of the fathers of the church. The Stoics and the Platonists frequently took an interest in the religious beliefs of the barbarians, and it is to them that we are indebted for the possession of highly valuable data on this subject. Plutarch's treatise Isis and Osiris is a source whose importance is appreciated even by Egyptologists, whom it aids in reconstructing the legends of those divinities.[20] But the philosophers very seldom expounded foreign doctrines objectively and for their own sake. They embodied them in their systems as a means of proof or illustration; they surrounded them with personal exegesis or drowned them in transcendental commentaries; in short, they claimed to discover their own ideas in them. It is always difficult and sometimes impossible to distinguish the dogmas from the self-confident interpretations which are usually as incorrect as possible.

The writings of the ecclesiastical authors, although prejudiced, are very fertile sources of information, but in perusing them one must guard against another kind {15} of error. By a peculiar irony of fate those controversialists are to-day in many instances our only aid in reviving the idolatry they attempted to destroy. Although the Oriental religions were the most dangerous and most persistent adversaries of Christianity, the works of the Christian writers do not supply as abundant information as one might suppose. The reason for this is that the fathers of the church often show a certain reserve in speaking of idolatry, and affect to recall its monstrosities only in guarded terms. Moreover, as we shall see later on,[21] the apologists of the fourth century were frequently behind the times as to the evolution of doctrines, and drawing on literary tradition, from epicureans and skeptics, they fought especially the beliefs of the ancient Grecian and Italian religions that had been abolished or were dying out, while they neglected the living beliefs of the contemporary world.

Some of these polemicists nevertheless directed their attacks against the divinities of the Orient and their Latin votaries. Either they derived their information from converts or they had been pagans themselves during their youth. This was the case with Firmicus Maternus who has written a bad treatise on astrology and finally fought the Error of the Profane Religions. However, the question always arises as to how much they can have known of the esoteric doctrines and the ritual ceremonies, the secret of which was jealously guarded. They boast so loudly of their power to disclose these abominations, that they incur the suspicion that the discretion of the initiates baffled their curiosity. In addition they were too ready to believe all the calumnies that were circulated against the pagan mysteries, {16} calumnies directed against occult sects of all times and against the Christians themselves.

In short, the literary tradition is not very rich and frequently little worthy of belief. While it is comparatively considerable for the Egyptian religions because they were received by the Greek world as early as the period of the Ptolemies, and because letters and science were always cultivated at Alexandria, it is even less important for Phrygia, although Cybele was Hellenized and Latinized very early, and excepting the tract by Lucian on the goddess of Hierapolis it is almost nothing for the Syrian, Cappadocian and Persian religions.

The insufficiency of the data supplied by writers increases the value of information furnished by epigraphic and archeological documents, whose number is steadily growing. The inscriptions possess a certainty and precision that is frequently absent in the phrases of the writers. They enable one to draw important conclusions as to the dates of propagation and disappearance of the various religions, their extent, the quality and social rank of their votaries, the sacred hierarchy and sacerdotal personnel, the constitution of the religious communities, the offerings made to the gods, and the ceremonies performed in their honor; in short, conclusions as to the secular and profane history of these religions, and in a certain measure their ritual. But the conciseness of the lapidary style and the constant repetition of stereotyped formulas naturally render that kind of text hardly explicit and sometimes enigmatical. There are dedications like the Nama Sebesio engraved upon the great Mithra bas-relief preserved in the Louvre, that caused a number of {17} dissertations to be written without any one explaining it. And besides, in a general way, epigraphy gives us but little information about the liturgy and almost nothing regarding the doctrines.

Archeology must endeavor to fill the enormous blanks left by the written tradition; the monuments, especially the artistic ones, have not as yet been collected with sufficient care nor interpreted with sufficient method. By studying the arrangement of the temples and the religious furniture that adorned them, one can at the same time determine part of the liturgic ceremonies which took place there. On the other hand, the critical interpretation of statuary relics enables us to reconstruct with sufficient correctness certain sacred legends and to recover part of the theology of the mysteries. Unlike Greek art, the religious art at the close of paganism did not seek, or sought only incidentally, to elevate the soul through the contemplation of an ideal of divine beauty. True to the traditions of the ancient Orient, it tried to edify and to instruct at the same time.[22] It told the history of the gods and the world in cycles of pictures, or it expressed through symbols the subtle conceptions of theology and even certain doctrines of profane science, like the struggle of the four elements; just as during the Middle Ages, so the artist of the empire interpreted the ideas of the clergy, teaching the believers by means of pictures and rendering the highest religious conceptions intelligible to the humblest minds. But to read this mystic book whose pages are scattered in our museums we must laboriously look for its key, and we cannot take for a guide and exegetist some Vincent de Beauvais of Diocletian's period[23] as when looking over the marvelous {18} sculptured encyclopedias in our Gothic cathedrals. Our position is frequently similar to that of a scholar of the year 4000 who would undertake to write the history of the Passion from the pictures of the fourteen stations, or to study the veneration of the saints from the statues found in the ruins of our churches.

But, as far as the Oriental religions are concerned, the results of all the laborious investigations now being made in the classical countries can be indirectly controlled, and this is a great advantage. To-day we are tolerably well acquainted with the old religions of Egypt, Babylonia and Persia. We read and translate correctly the hieroglyphics of the Nile, the cuneiform tablets of Mesopotamia and the sacred books, Zend or Pahlavi, of Parseeism. Religious history has profited more by their deciphering than the history of politics or of civilization. In Syria also, the discovery of Aramaic and Phoenician inscriptions and the excavations made in temples have in a certain measure covered the deficiency of information in the Bible or in the Greek writers on Semitic paganism. Even Asia Minor, that is to say the uplands of Anatolia, is beginning to reveal herself to explorers although almost all the great sanctuaries, Pessinus, the two Comanas, Castabala, are as yet buried underground. We can, therefore, even now form a fairly exact idea of the beliefs of some of the countries that sent the Oriental mysteries to Rome. To tell the truth, these researches have not been pushed far enough to enable us to state precisely what form religion had assumed in those regions at the time they came into contact with Italy, and we should be likely to commit very strange errors, if we brought together practices that may have been {19} separated by thousands of years. It is a task reserved for the future to establish a rigorous chronology in this matter, to determine the ultimate phase that the evolution of creeds in all regions of the Levant had reached at the beginning of our era, and to connect them without interruption of continuity to the mysteries practiced in the Latin world, the secrets of which archeological researches are slowly bringing to light.

We are still far from welding all the links of this long chain firmly together; the orientalists and the classical philologists cannot, as yet, shake hands across the Mediterranean. We raise only one corner of Isis's veil, and scarcely guess a part of the revelations that were, even formerly, reserved for a pious and chosen few. Nevertheless we have reached, on the road of certainty, a summit from which we can overlook the field that our successors will clear. In the course of these lectures I shall attempt to give a summary of the essential results achieved by the erudition of the nineteenth century and to draw from them a few conclusions that will, possibly, be provisional. The invasion of the Oriental religions that destroyed the ancient religions and national ideals of the Romans also radically transformed the society and government of the empire, and in view of this fact it would deserve the historian's attention even if it had not foreshadowed and prepared the final victory of Christianity.

* * * * *



When, during the fourth century, the weakened empire split asunder like an overburdened scale whose beam is broken, this political divorce perpetuated a moral separation that had existed for a long time. The opposition between the Greco-Oriental and the Latin worlds manifests itself especially in religion and in the attitude taken by the central power toward it.

Occidental paganism was almost exclusively Latin under the empire. After the annexation of Spain, Gaul and Brittany, the old Iberian, Celtic and other religions were unable to keep up the unequal struggle against the more advanced religion of the conquerors. The marvelous rapidity with which the literature of the civilizing Romans was accepted by the subject peoples has frequently been pointed out. Its influence was felt in the temples as well as in the forum; it transformed the prayers to the gods as well as the conversation between men. Besides, it was part of the political program of the Caesars to make the adoption of the Roman divinities general, and the government imposed the rules of its sacerdotal law as well as the principles of its public and civil law upon its new subjects. The municipal laws prescribed the election of pontiffs and augurs in common with the judicial duumvirs. In Gaul druidism, with its oral traditions embodied in {21} long poems, perished and disappeared less on account of the police measures directed against it than in consequence of its voluntary relinquishment by the Celts, as soon as they came under the ascendency of Latin culture. In Spain it is difficult to find any traces of the aboriginal religions. Even in Africa, where the Punic religion was far more developed, it maintained itself only by assuming an entirely Roman appearance. Baal became Saturn and Eshmoun AEsculapius. It is doubtful if there was one temple in all the provinces of Italy and Gaul where, at the time of the disappearance of idolatry, the ceremonies were celebrated according to native rites and in the local idiom. To this exclusive predominance of Latin is due the fact that it remained the only liturgic language of the Occidental church, which here as in many other cases perpetuated a preexisting condition and maintained a unity previously established. By imposing her speech upon the inhabitants of Ireland and Germany, Christian Rome simply continued the work of assimilation in the barbarian provinces subject to her influence that she had begun while pagan.[1]

In the Orient, however, the churches that are separate from the Greek orthodoxy use, even to-day, a variety of dialects calling to mind the great diversity of races formerly subject to Rome. In those times twenty varieties of speech translated the religious thought of the peoples joined under the dominion of the Caesars. At the beginning of our era Hellenism had not yet conquered the uplands of Anatolia,[2] nor central Syria, nor the divisions of Egypt. Annexation to the empire might retard and in certain regions weaken the power of expansion of Greek civilization, {22} but it could not substitute Latin culture for it[3] except around the camps of the legions guarding the frontier, and in a very few colonies. It especially benefitted the individuality of each region. The native religions retained all their prestige and independence. In their ancient sanctuaries that took rank with the richest and most famous of the world, a powerful clergy continued to practise ancestral devotions according to barbarian rites, and frequently in a barbarian tongue. The traditional liturgy, everywhere performed with scrupulous respect, remained Egyptian or Semitic, Phrygian or Persian, according to the locality.

Neither pontifical law nor augural science ever obtained credit outside of the Latin world. It is a characteristic fact that the worship of the deified emperors, the only official worship required of every one by the government as a proof of loyalty, should have originated of its own accord in Asia, received its inspiration from the purest monarchic traditions, and revived in form and spirit the veneration accorded to the Diadochi by their subjects.

Not only were the gods of Egypt and Asia never supplanted like those of Gaul or Spain, but they soon crossed the seas and gained worshipers in every Latin province. Isis and Serapis, Cybele and Attis, the Syrian Baals, Sabazius and Mithra were honored by brotherhoods of believers as far as the remotest limits of Germany. The Oriental reaction that we perceive from the beginning of our era, in studying the history of art, literature, and philosophy, manifested itself with incomparably greater power in the religious sphere. First, there was a slow infiltration of despised exotic religions, then, toward the end of the first {23} century, the Orontes, the Nile and the Halys, to use the words of Juvenal, flowed into the Tiber, to the great indignation of the old Romans. Finally, a hundred years later, an influx of Egyptian, Semitic and Persian beliefs and conceptions took place that threatened to submerge all that the Greek and Roman genius had laboriously built up. What called forth and permitted this spiritual commotion, of which the triumph of Christianity was the outcome? Why was the influence of the Orient strongest in the religious field? These questions claim our attention. Like all great phenomena of history, this particular one was determined by a number of influences that concurred in producing it. In the mass of half-known particulars that brought it about, certain factors or leading causes, of which every one has in turn been considered the most important, may be distinguished.

If we yielded to the tendency of many excellent minds of to-day and regarded history as the resultant of economic and social forces, it would be easy to show their influence in that great religious movement. The industrial and commercial preponderance of the Orient was manifest, for there were situated the principal centers of production and export. The ever increasing traffic with the Levant induced merchants to establish themselves in Italy, in Gaul, in the Danubian countries, in Africa and in Spain; in some cities they formed real colonies. The Syrian emigrants were especially numerous. Compliant, quick and diligent, they went wherever they expected profit, and their colonies, scattered as far as the north of Gaul, were centers for the religious propaganda of paganism just as the Jewish communities of the Diaspora were for Christian {24} preaching. Italy not only bought her grain from Egypt, she imported men also; she ordered slaves from Phrygia, Cappadocia, Syria and Alexandria to cultivate her depopulated fields and perform the domestic duties in her palaces. Who can tell what influence chambermaids from Antioch or Memphis gained over the minds of their mistresses? At the same time the necessities of war removed officers and men from the Euphrates to the Rhine or to the outskirts of the Sahara, and everywhere they remained faithful to the gods of their far-away country. The requirements of the government transferred functionaries and their clerks, the latter frequently of servile birth, into the most distant provinces. Finally, the ease of communication, due to the good roads, increased the frequency and extent of travel.

Thus the exchange of products, men and ideas necessarily increased, and it might be maintained that theocracy was a necessary consequence of the mingling of the races, that the gods of the Orient followed the great commercial and social currents, and that their establishment in the Occident was a natural result of the movement that drew the excess population of the Asiatic cities and rural districts into the less thickly inhabited countries.

These reflections, which could be developed at some length, surely show the way in which the Oriental religions spread. It is certain that the merchants acted as missionaries in the seaports and places of commerce, the soldiers on the frontiers and in the capital, the slaves in the city homes,[4] in the rural districts and in public affairs. But while this acquaints us with the means and the agents of the diffusion of those religions, {25} it tells us nothing of the reasons for their adoption by the Romans. We perceive the how, but not the why, of their sudden expansion. Especially imperfect is our understanding of the reasons for the difference between the Orient and the Occident pointed out above.

An example will make my meaning clear. A Celtic divinity, Epona,[5] was held in particular honor as the protectress of horses, as we all know. The Gallic horsemen worshiped her wherever they were cantoned; her monuments have been found scattered from Scotland to Transylvania. And yet, although this goddess enjoyed the same conditions as, for instance Jupiter Dolichenus whom the cohorts of Commagene introduced into Europe, it does not appear that she ever received the homage of many strangers; it does not appear, above all, that druidism ever assumed the shape of "mysteries of Epona" into which Greeks and Romans would have asked to be initiated. It was too deficient in the intrinsic strength of the Oriental religions, to make proselytes.

Other historians and thinkers of to-day prefer to apply the laws of natural science to religious phenomena; and the theories about the variation of species find an unforeseen application here. It is maintained that the immigration of Orientals, of Syrians in particular, was considerable enough to provoke an alteration and rapid deterioration in the robust Italic and Celtic races. In addition, a social status contrary to nature, and a bad political regime effected the destruction of the strongest, the extermination of the best and the ascendancy of the worst elements of the population. This multitude, corrupted by deleterious cross-breeding and weakened by bad selection, became unable to {26} oppose the invasion of the Asiatic chimeras and aberrations. A lowering of the intellectual level and the disappearance of the critical spirit accompanied the decline of morals and the weakening of character. In the evolution of beliefs the triumph of the Orient denoted a regression toward barbarism, a return to the remote origins of faith and to the worship of natural forces. This is a brief outline of explanations recently proposed and received with some favor.[6]

It cannot be denied that souls and morals appear to have become coarser during the Roman decline. Society as a whole was deplorably lacking in imagination, intellect and taste. It seemed afflicted with a kind of cerebral anemia and incurable sterility. The impaired reason accepted the coarsest superstitions, the most extreme asceticism and most extravagant theurgy. It resembled an organism incapable of defending itself against contagion. All this is partly true; but the theories summarized proceed from an incorrect conception of things; in reality they are based on the illusion that Asia, under the empire, was inferior to Europe. While the triumph of the Oriental religions sometimes assumed the appearance of an awakening of savagery, these religions in reality represented a more advanced type in the evolution of religious forms than the ancient national devotions. They were less primitive, less simple, and, if I may use the expression, provided with more organs than the old Greco-Roman idolatry. We have indicated this on previous occasions, and hope to bring it out with perfect clearness in the course of these studies.

It is hardly necessary to state that a great religious conquest can be explained only on moral grounds. {27} Whatever part must be ascribed to the instinct of imitation and the contagion of example, in the last analysis we are always face to face with a series of individual conversions. The mysterious affinity of minds is as much due to reflection as to the continued and almost unconscious influence of confused aspirations that produce faith. The obscure gestation of a new ideal is accomplished with pangs of anguish. Violent struggles must have disturbed the souls of the masses when they were torn away from their old ancestral religions, or more often from indifference, by those exacting gods who demanded a surrender of the entire person, a devotion in the etymological meaning of the word. The consecration to Isis of the hero of Apuleius was the result of a call, of an appeal, by the goddess who wanted the neophyte to enlist in her sacred militia.[7]

If it is true that every conversion involves a psychological crisis, a transformation of the intimate personality of the individual, this is especially true of the propagation of the Oriental religions. Born outside of the narrow limits of the Roman city, they grew up frequently in hostility to it, and were international, consequently individual. The bond that formerly kept devotion centered upon the city or the tribe, upon the gens or the family, was broken. In place of the ancient social groups communities of initiates came into existence, who considered themselves brothers no matter where they came from.[8] A god, conceived of as being universal, received every mortal as his child. Whenever these religions had any relation to the state they were no longer called upon to support old municipal or social institutions, but to lend their strength to the {28} authority of a sovereign regarded as the eternal lord of the whole world jointly with God himself. In the circles of the mystics, Asiatics mingled with Romans, and slaves with high functionaries. The adoption of the same faith made the poor freedman the equal and sometimes the superior, of the decurion and the clarissimus. All submitted to the same rules and participated in the same festivities, in which the distinctions of an aristocratic society and the differences of blood and country were obliterated. The distinctions of race and nationality, of magistrate and father of a family, of patrician and plebeian, of citizen and foreigner, were abolished; all were but men, and in order to recruit members, those religions worked upon man and his character.

In order to gain the masses and the cream of Roman society (as they did for a whole century) the barbarian mysteries had to possess a powerful charm, they had to satisfy the deep wants of the human soul, and their strength had to be superior to that of the ancient Greco-Roman religion. To explain the reasons for their victory we must try to reveal the nature of this superiority—I mean their superiority in the struggle, without assuming innate superiority.

I believe that we can define it by stating that those religions gave greater satisfaction first, to the senses and passions, secondly, to the intelligence, finally, and above all, to the conscience.

In the first place, they appealed more strongly to the senses. This was their most obvious feature, and it has been pointed out more often than any other. Perhaps there never was a religion so cold and prosaic as the Roman. Being subordinated to politics, it sought, {29} above all, to secure the protection of the gods for the state and to avert the effects of their malevolence by the strict execution of appropriate practices. It entered into a contract with the celestial powers from which mutual obligations arose: sacrifices on one side, favors on the other. The pontiffs, who were also magistrates, regulated the religious practices with the exact precision of jurists;[9] as far as we know the prayers were all couched in formulas as dry and verbose as notarial instruments. The liturgy reminds one of the ancient civil law on account of the minuteness of its prescriptions. This religion looked suspiciously at the abandonment of the soul to the ecstasies of devotion. It repressed, by force if necessary, the exuberant manifestations of too ardent faith and everything that was not in keeping with the grave dignity befitting the relations of a civis Romanus with a god. The Jews had the same scrupulous respect as the Romans for a religious code and formulas of the past, "but in spite of their dry and minute practices, the legalism of the Pharisees stirred the heart more strongly than did Roman formalism."[10]

Lacking the recognized authority of official creeds, the Oriental religions had to appeal to the passions of the individual in order to make proselytes. They attracted men first by the disturbing seductiveness of their mysteries, where terror and hope were evoked in turns, and charmed them by the pomp of their festivities and the magnificence of their processions. Men were fascinated by the languishing songs and intoxicating melodies. Above all these religions taught men how to reach that blissful state in which the soul was freed from the tyranny of the body and of suffering, {30} and lost itself in raptures. They led to ecstasy either by means of nervous tension resulting from continued maceration and fervent contemplation or by more material means like the stimulation of vertiginous dances and dizzy music, or even by the absorption of fermented liquors after a long abstinence,[11] as in the case of the priests of the Great Mother. In mysticism it is easy to descend from the sublime to the vile.

Even the gods, with whom the believers thought they were uniting themselves in their mystic outbursts, were more human and sometimes more sensual than those of the Occident. The latter had that quietude of soul in which the philosophic morality of the Greeks saw a privilege of the sage; in the serenity of Olympus they enjoyed perpetual youth; they were Immortals. The divinities of the Orient, on the contrary, suffered and died, but only to revive again.[12] Osiris, Attis and Adonis were mourned like mortals by wife or mistress, Isis, Cybele or Astarte. With them the mystics moaned for their deceased god and later, after he had revived, celebrated with exultation his birth to a new life. Or else they joined in the passion of Mithra, condemned to create the world in suffering. This common grief and joy were often expressed with savage violence, by bloody mutilations, long wails of despair, and extravagant acclamations. The manifestations of the extreme fanaticism of those barbarian races that had not been touched by Greek skepticism and the very ardor of their faith inflamed the souls of the multitudes attracted by the exotic gods.

The Oriental religions touched every chord of sensibility and satisfied the thirst for religious emotion that the austere Roman creed had been unable to quench. {31} But at the same time they satisfied the intellect more fully, and this is my second point.

In very early times Greece—later imitated by Rome—became resolutely rationalistic: her greatest originality lies here. Her philosophy was purely laical; thought was unrestrained by any sacred tradition; it even pretended to pass judgment upon these traditions and condemned or approved of them. Being sometimes hostile, sometimes indifferent and some times conciliatory, it always remained independent of faith. But while Greece thus freed herself from the fetters of a superannuated mythology, and openly and boldly constructed those systems of metaphysics by means of which she claimed to solve the enigmas of the universe, her religion lost its vitality and dried up because it lacked the strengthening nourishment of reflection. It became a thing devoid of sense, whose raison d'etre was no longer understood; it embodied dead ideas and an obsolete conception of the world. In Greece as well as at Rome it was reduced to a collection of unintelligible rites, scrupulously and mechanically reproduced without addition or omission because they had been practised by the ancestors of long ago, and formulas hallowed by the mos maiorum, that were no longer understood or sincerely cherished. Never did a people of advanced culture have a more infantile religion.

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