In my previous post Quote of the Day #85 I made a passing reference to the fourth century Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate (I used a picture of one of his coins as the header for this post). I was making the point that I do not accept that the ‘Woke’ ideology currently infecting our society is left-wing nor is it Marxist. I think that the best way to understand ‘Wokeism’ (for want of a better word) is as a religious cult.
The more I have thought about it, the more I think I was on to something. Come and join me on a journey into the later Roman Empire and how it may help us understand our current situation.
History is a deeply complex subject. It is not about moral judgments or ‘goodies and baddies’ but about trying to understand people who were often very different from us in their motivations and ideas and about asking why they behaved in the way they did. I have complained (endlessly?) on this blog about the level of historical illiteracy and lack of knowledge of the past in the modern West. The obsession with the Second World War and Nazi Germany is particularly irksome. I will say something that some will find needlessly confrontational – if your default choice of historical metaphor in 2020 is what happened in Germany between 1918 and 1945 then you are demonstrating both a shocking level of ignorance and a complete lack of understanding of the unique and specific circumstances in Germany and Europe during those years.
I believe that it is reasonable to compare ‘Wokeism’ with the various forms of Abraham’s delusion; Judaism, Christianity and Islam are a single religion claiming to be three (a bit like the Trinity). Most readers are probably most familiar with the second version of this anti-human death cult so I’d like now to discuss the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great.
Constantine was the son of Flavius Constantius who was deputy emperor then emperor of the Western Roman Empire between 293 and 306. After Constantius died (at York as it happens) Constantine seized power and launched a series of civil wars that culminated in his becoming the sole ruler of the whole empire by 324. It was during one of these many wars against fellow Romans that Constantine allegedly had a vision of the Christian Chi-Ro symbol and in 313 he made Christianity both legal and officially sanctioned. Constantine himself may or may not have been a Christian (his coins continued to show Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun) but he was baptised on his deathbed in 337.
The origins of Christianity are obscure but you can forget any nonsense about widespread persecution that you may have heard about during Nero’s reign (54-68) or seen in various 1950s Hollywood epics. The Romans were extraordinarily tolerant of their subject peoples’ religious beliefs and only expected the most basic of sacrifices (a pinch of incense) to the imperial cult to prove loyalty. Most historians are skeptical about claims of Nero persecuting Christians after blaming them for the Great Fire of Rome in 64. Indeed, Christianity and Judaism were not really separate until sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70. The first major persecution of Christians did not occur until the reign of Decius (249-251) and by the time of Constantine only about 10% (at most) of the Roman population was Christian.
Then as now, people like to be on the side of the winners and by the reign of Constantine’s nephew Julian the Apostate (361-363) somewhere between 50% and 60% of the Roman population was Christian. Julian had been raised as a Christian but had rejected the religion in favour of the older Roman gods. Julian was only about thirty when he became emperor and he died only two years later during an invasion of the Persian Empire. But what if Julian hadn’t died? If he had lived to a similar age to his uncle, Julian could have enjoyed a reign of over thirty years. Plenty of Romans, especially amongst the aristocracy in Italy, were unhappy with Christianity. Had Julian lived perhaps we could have been spared the situation where the vast power of the Roman state was placed behind such a bigoted ideology as Christianity which crushed all other belief systems (anything but Christianity was made illegal by the Emperor Theodosius the Great in 391). And without a militantly Christian Roman Empire perhaps the third, and most aggressive, of the Abrahamic delusions would never have appeared. Imagine that, world history without the immense power of Roman Christianity or the violent fanaticism of Islam.
Christianity is a disgusting religion and so are Judaism and Islam. All are violent, intolerant, prone to fanaticism and deeply misanthropic. I wrote a detailed piece in 2017 called The New Puritans comparing the Christian zealots of the fourth century with the modern day barbarism of ISIS and I stand by that comparison. The Romans had been followers of Jupiter et al for more than a millennium before Constantine and Christian for only about thirty years when Julian became emperor. It is not stretching credibility too much to see a non-Christian Empire after a thirty year traditionalist reign, or at least an Empire that wasn’t solely or fanatically Christian. And, as I said earlier, without a zealously Christian Rome perhaps no Islam.
A small but dedicated minority managed to turn an Empire that had never really had religious problems into one where people died over pictures. This is not hyperbole – look up iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire if you want to know about the depths to which the religion of the ‘prince of peace’ sunk. And such a small but dedicated minority is trying to do the same in our own times.