NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, November 7th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. A quick note on the commentary to follow: some details may be unsuitable for children. So you may want to hit pause and come back later. You’ve got about 20 seconds.
EICHER: Today in Ohio, voters will decide…among other issues…whether to amend the state constitution to include a right to abortion. The debate may seem new, but it really isn’t.
WORLD commentator Janie B. Cheaney says modern America has a lot in common with the Roman empire when it comes to killing children.
JANIE B. CHEANEY, COMMENTATOR: “How often do you think of the Roman Empire?” That was a question posed on TikTok last September, a surprising number of men answered, “Every day.”
Author and journalist Louise Perry has been thinking about Rome, in particular the similarities between ancient Roman paganism and today’s social trends. She began a recent article in First Things with a poem by Hollie McNish, called “Conversation with an archaeologist.” How, asked the poet, did the man know the ruins at last night’s archeological dig was a brothel? His answer: “a pit of newborn babies’ bones.”
A classicist friend of Perry’s later confirmed that brutal fact—abortion and infanticide were common practice in Roman brothels. Today, the tiny bones left behind are mostly male; female infants born in the brothel would grow up to supply the brothel. Sex was for sale everywhere in the city of Rome, and throughout the Empire. The slave population, estimated as anywhere from twenty to thirty percent, was ever subject to the appetites of freeborn men. The emperor-worship established by Caesar Augustus aimed to reinforce strength and virtue, but it was impossible to hold those two together, especially while offering sacrifices to less-than-virtuous deities.
The appeal of gods and goddesses, with their spectacular powers and outsized flaws, lingers today in popular children’s books and Marvel and DC heroes. But aside from spectacle, there’s a practical appeal 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 ways to appease the gods for a dollop of divine favor. This works best for those who can bring something to the table, like an Ivy-League degree. To the pagan mind it only makes sense: winners win because they are winners.
The shock of Christianity was in elevating the weak. That’s one reason why enlightened Romans despised it. Even enlightened Europeans like historian Edward Gibbon and poet Algernon Swinburn 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 Norse mythology.
I’ve heard many comparisons from the pulpit of Roman decline and modern cultural rot. Louise Perry hears echoes of Roman brothels in the dumpsters behind abortion clinics: the weakest humans sacrificed to pagan utility. Though agnostic about both Christianity and abortion, she’s troubled by our culture’s willful ignorance about the stakes. With infanticide under serious discussion in Canada, and that country’s “Medical Assistance in Dying” law being stretched to influence the decisions of people who aren’t 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? That’s the story of history, after all.
Paganism was officially put down by Christianity but never went away. The “elemental spirits of the world,” as Paul describes it in Colossians, reflect humanity’s default setting that Christ came to defeat. And he will, but in the meantime the battle is ours to fight.
I’m Janie B. Cheaney.
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