Rome and America
A re-paganizing West and its sacrifices
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Ancient Rome seems far away, and not far at all. A recent TikTok question generated a wave of response and comment in the media: “How often do you think of the Roman Empire?” A surprising number of men answered, “every day.” As one who doesn’t regularly think about the Roman Empire, I don’t know how much weight to give this cultural detail. But it does remind me that for most of my life I’ve been hearing comparisons from the pulpit of ancient Rome and modern cultural rot. If our society doesn’t shape up and stop (a) casually divorcing, (b) sleeping around, (c) aborting babies, and (d) accepting homosexuality, it’s headed for a decline and fall, Roman-Empire style.
Louise Perry has been thinking about Rome in the pages of First Things, and concludes that “We Are Repaganizing.” Perry, perhaps best known for writing The Case Against the Sexual Revolution (Polity 2022), sees a connection between current sexual ethics and pre-Christian cultural mores. She begins the First Things article with a striking poem by Scottish poet Hollie McNish, called “Conversation With an Archaeologist.” How, asked the poet, did the man know the ruins he’d uncovered at last night’s dig was a brothel? His answer: “a pit of newborn babies’ bones.”
The brutal fact couched in blank verse was later confirmed by a classicist friend of Perry’s. The tiny bones would be mostly male; female infants born in the brothel were raised to supply the brothel. The demand was insatiable, as sex was for sale everywhere in the city of Rome and readily available throughout the Empire. The slave population, possibly as high as 30 percent at times, was ever subject to the appetites of freeborn men. The emperor worship established by Caesar Augustus aimed to reinforce strength and virtue, but it proved impossible to hold those two in balance, especially while offering sacrifices to less-than-virtuous deities.
The appeal of gods and goddesses, with their spectacular powers and outsized flaws, didn’t decline with the Empire; it exists today in the popular Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, which began as an updating of Greek myths and carved out an impressive niche in children’s publishing with novels based on mythologies from around the world. And what are Marvel and DC heroes but Americanized gods?
Aside from spectacle, there’s another attraction of paganism: You get what you pay for. Whether it’s good crops and a male heir, or a supermodel date and a corner office, there are always avenues to appease the gods for a dollop of divine favor. This works best, of course, for those who can bring some currency to the table, like an Ivy League degree. To the pagan mind this only makes sense: To the victor belong the spoils.
The shock of Christianity was in elevating the weak. That’s one reason why enlightened Romans despised it. Even enlightened Europeans like Edward Gibbon (of Decline and Fall fame) and Algernon Swinburne saw the gods as nobler, braver, and more inspiring than Jesus the “pale Galilean.” Why shouldn’t the strong control the weak? That was the Nazi ethos, which (not surprisingly) drew inspiration from Wagner and the Norse pantheon.
Louise Perry hears echoes of Roman brothels in the dumpsters behind abortion centers: the weakest humans sacrificed to pagan utility. Though she’s agnostic about both Christianity and abortion, our culture’s willful ignorance about the stakes troubles her. With infanticide a topic of serious debate in Canada, and that country’s infamous Medical Assistance in Dying law being stretched to influence the decisions of people who aren’t necessarily terminal, are we drifting closer to a cultural decline and fall? For all our hand-wringing about oppressed groups, what do privileged minorities do once in power but exercise their own forms of oppression?
Paganism was officially put down by Christianity but never went away. The “elemental spirits of the world,” as Paul describes it in Colossians, is humanity’s default setting that Christ came to defeat. And He will, but the battle is ours to fight.
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