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Pagan Regeneration, by Harold R. Willoughby, [1929], at



ALL religious systems deserve to be evaluated by the pragmatic test of their functional significance for human society. The extent to which they meet the actual needs of individuals and groups in a given period is the measuring rod to be used in estimating their worth. Modern historical study has taught us to view the phenomena of religion in relation to the evolution of the human race and to regard all religious systems, without exception, as socially conditioned products. This applies equally to Christian and to non-Christian systems, and to religions of attainment or religions of redemption like the mysteries. Any given cult that is a going concern develops its peculiar characteristics in response to certain vital demands that are put upon it by society, and these demands, in turn, are but the more or less articulate expression of certain basic social interests that are dominant at that particular period. Hence, in order to understand the needs and desires which found satisfaction in mystery initiations, it is necessary to take a broad view of the general social situation in the Graeco-Roman world and to define, if possible, the outstanding religious interests of Mediterranean peoples in the first century of the Christian era.


Graeco-Roman society with all of its complexity was yet a closely knit social fabric unified in large and significant ways. Politically, the Mediterranean world of the Augustan age was a unit for the first time in history, welded together by three hundred years of military conquests preceding the beginning of our era. To hold this Mediterranean world together in an imperial unity, Rome had thrown over it a great network of military highways reaching to the farthest provinces and centering in Rome itself. Cultural and commercial processes operated even more effectively than military conquests and political organization to unify the peoples of the Mediterranean area. Society under the early Empire continued to be highly Hellenized as it had been during the three centuries previous. Greek continued to be the language of culture and commerce, with Latin as the lingua Franca of diplomacy. The sea, cleared of pirates, was a great channel of commerce that led to all the Roman world, and the military highways provided the necessary land routes. Because of the easy means of communication, there was a free mingling of races and classes in the centers of population. In any important Mediterranean city one met Roman officials and native workmen, Phrygian slaves and Greek students, Syrian merchants and Egyptian sailors, all engaged in a common struggle for existence within the bounds of one huge empire.

This free competition on a world scale gave the individual his opportunity. Before the days of Alexander the interests of the individual were quite submerged in comparison with those of the tribe or state. The larger social group was the end--all of existence and personal concerns were properly subordinated thereto. It was a proud thing in one of the city-states of Greece for the citizen to have the opportunity of furnishing a chorus for a civic festival or of fitting out a trireme for the protection of the state. But in the changed conditions of the imperial period all was different. Individual interests came to the fore and those of the state receded to the background. The Roman Empire meant far less to the citizen than the Greek polis had meant. It was too large and too far away to be very dependent on his support or to contribute much to his happiness. In the ruthlessness of conquest and the stress of competition, local customs were ignored, traditions were swept aside, and the unsupported individual was thrown back upon his own resources, but with a world of opporttinity before him. Happiness and well-being, if won at all, must be won by himself and for himself alone. It was tn era of extreme individualism.

In every department of life almost, the changed point of view was felt and recorded. Art featured realistic sculpture and portrait busts. Latin literature became self-conscious and personal, and politics suffered much from individuals who sought to exploit the state for personal gain.

Religion, like the other phases of Graeco-Roman life, felt the effect of these changed social conditions. For the masses of men former religious sanctions and guaranties no longer functioned. In the old, pre-imperial days the individual was well satisfied with the group guaranties that were offered by local and nationalistic religions. To be sure, his relationship to the state deity was only an indirect one--through the group to which he belonged. To be sure, the goods sought were chiefly social benefits which he shared with his fellow citizens. But so long as the gods protected the state and the state protected him he was well content. Successive conquests by foreign powers, however, rudely destroyed this complacency, and the victory of Macedonian and Roman arms wrecked the prestige of merely local and national deities. As racial barriers were broken down and the individual felt himself free to travel and trade in a wide world, he became conscious of needs and desires he had never known before. As a practical matter the time-honored customs of his fathers could not be maintained in foreign lands. New sanctions and assurances of a more personal sort were needed. Thus, in line with the general social movements of the time, there was a distinct breakdown of traditional religion, and national cults, popular in the Hellenic period, fell into abeyance.

But the masses of men did not become, irreligious by any means. Instead, they turned to religions of another type and sought satisfactions of a different variety. Their quest was no longer for a god powerful enough to save the state but rather for one who was benevolent enough to save the individual. Oracles were consulted, not so often in the interest of the community but more frequently for the guidance of the individual in his personal affairs. More than ever before the home became a temple and the daily life of the family was filled with the paraphernalia of piety. The shrines of healing gods were overcrowded, and magicians, who were considered the chief mediators of divine power, carried on a thriving business.

In particular, men turned for the satisfaction of personal desires to the mystery group of religions, which were indeed very ancient cults but had hitherto been comparatively insignificant. Most of them came to the Graeco-Roman world from the Orient, with the authority of a venerable past, with an air of deep mystery, and with rites that were most impressive. But the chief reason for their popularity at this time was the satisfactory way in which they ministered to the needs of the individual man. Completely denationalized and liberated from racial prejudices, they welcomed men of all races to their membership. They were genuinely democratic brotherhoods in which rich and poor, slave and master, Greek and barbarian met on a parity. Moreover, they touched the common life of men intimately and in a variety of ways. It is impressive when one reads the references to these cults in secular literature to note the complete faith that ordinary folk had in their mystery gods and how they sought for their divine help and guidance in matters of health and love and business and in all the other multifarious concerns of everyday life.

Chief among the personal satisfactions these cults had to offer was the privilege of a new birth for the individual. When the neophyte was initiated into the cult he became a new man--this was the gentile conviction. In earlier centuries, when the emphasis in religion was tribal or national, this was no special advantage. Then the individual felt certain of his salvation because of his birth into a particular tribe or race. The Athenian, for example, did not doubt the peculiar interest of the maiden goddess on the Acropolis both in himself and in his native city. The Jew, even throughout the prolonged tragedy of his vain struggle for a national existence, succeeded in maintaining his proud consciousness of the sufficiency of his racial birth. But the generality of men in the Roman world had not this confidence either in racial connections or in the potentiality of human nature itself. For salvation such as the first-century Gentile desired--a salvation that included the immortality of the soul as well as the present welfare of the body--an essential change of being was felt to be necessary, and this the mystery religions guaranteed by means of their initiatory rites. Among the basic religious needs met by mystery initiation, therefore, this should be mentioned as the first. It answered to the current demand for individualistic as opposed to racial guaranties in religion.


It is possible, however, to characterize more closely the type of individual religious experience which was fostered by Graeco-Oriental cults of the mystery type. Mystical experience was a common denominator of them all, and was about as conspicuous in one cult as in another. This fact cannot but impress one as being quite extraordinary because mysticism was essentially alien to the leading peoples of the Roman world. Certainly the Jewish mind was unfriendly to this very subjective type of personal religious experience. With his rigid monotheism, the Jew maintained a clear emphasis on individuality, both human and divine. Furthermore, since he thought of religion in terms of action primarily, his attention was focused on the externality of statutory observance. Latin religion, too, was characteristically as legalistic and objective as was the Jewish, though it was lacking in the minuteness of detailed application. For the typical Roman, religion was a commercial transaction between himself and his gods, and mysticism found little encouragement in such a business arrangement. To the Hellenic mind, also, mysticism had but slight attractiveness because of the balanced appreciation of the Greek for the insignificance and the dignity of man. The thinkers of classical Greece had a full and glad confidence in man's physical fitness to cope with his environment and his mental fitness to explore its mysteries.

This made the short span of man's life a glorious and zestful thing for them. Even so, the destiny of man in Hellenic thought was kept distinct from that of the gods. The reiterated theme of Greek tragedy was this: Would you be happy? Then remember your finiteness and be moderate in your desires and ambitions; else the envy of the gods will bring you disaster because of your presumptuous pride. "Know yourself" was the text of Socrates' teaching, and this was at once a warning to respect one's limitations and a promise that within the limits of human nature itself man could find full scope for the development of his powers. With its reasoned moderation Hellenism had characteristically little use for mysticism.

In spite of all this historical prejudice inherited from the earlier national period, the student finds mystical phenomena everywhere in the Graeco-Roman world. The imperial age was a time when religion was turning inward and becoming more emotional, while philosophy, converted to religion, was following the same trend. There was a cultivated antagonism between spirit and matter and the conscious endeavor to detach one from the other by means of ascetic practices. It was a period of world-weariness and other-worldliness. There was a demand for fresh emotional experience, and the culminating effort was to overleap the bounds of nature and to attain union with the divine in the occult region beyond. These were some of the currents that indicated the general direction of religious thought and feeling when the Christian era began.

They found cult expression supremely in the popular religions of redemption, in the mysteries of Eleusis and Attis and Isis and the rest. Even in the ascetic brotherhoods of Judaism these elements found practical exemplification among the Essenes of Palestine and the Therapeutae of Egypt--so far did the spirit of the times penetrate the inhospitable atmosphere of Judaism itself. More significant still was the philosophical expression of this identical interest. It came to the surface, for example, in the Hermeticism of Egypt and the revived Pythagoreanism of Italy, the latter being characterized by a curious mathematical mysticism accompanied by physical and moral austerities. Ever since the days of Plato the religio-philosophical movement named from Pythagoras had continued a concealed existence in connection with the mysteries of Dionysus and Orpheus. It almost betrayed itself in 181 B.C. by the flagrant forgery of "Numa's Book." But in the next century it appeared frankly in public view at Alexandria and Rome with a new religious literature and a sincere Roman champion in Cicero's friend, the senator Nigidius Figulus. At the time of Christianity's inception it had a more widely known exponent in the far-traveled Apollonius of Tyana. Furthermore, prominent thinkers like Philo the Jew, of Alexandria, and Plutarch the Greek, of Chaeronea, and Seneca the Spaniard, of Rome, all disclosed a high personal evaluation for this kind of religious experience. Each of these writers, in adopting a favorable attitude toward religious mysticism, belied the traditions of his own people, yet earnestly sought to bring his mystical longings into conformity with his own religious and philosophical heritage.

Modern scholars have come to recognize a common element, pronouncedly mystical, running through the writings of these philosophers and have credited this element to a single dominant personality, Posidonius of Apamea, who was born on the Orontes in Syria about 135 B.C. It would be impossible to select a single figure who more completely personified the intellectual and religious interests of that age than did Posidonius. He knew the Roman world as few others did for he had traveled even beyond the Pillars of Hercules and his curiosity ranged freely where he had not been in person. He was influential in that world--a teacher of Cicero who sent him an account of his consulship, and of Pompey who twice turned aside from his eastern campaigns to visit his master in Rhodes. In philosophy and religion Posidonius stood for popular eclecticism, mediating between the Orient and the Occident, between astrology and Stoicism. More than any other man of his era he gathered up the masses of popular beliefs and gave them effective literary expression. Child of his age in this as in all else, he felt the contemporary demand for a more inclusive life and sought to assuage it by a siderial mysticism. Hence he is chiefly remembered as the "beholder and expounder of heavens" who found in the enraptured contemplation of the starry skies an assurance of oneness with the divine. Like the astronomer Ptolemy, he could say, "Mortal that I am, I know that I am born for a day, but when I follow the serried multitude of the stars in their circular courses, my feet no longer touch the earth; I ascend to Zeus himself to feast on ambrosia, the food of the Gods." In Posidonius one finds a high peak of mystical enthusiasm; yet he was only one outstanding mystic among many others whom the pagan world knew at the time when the Roman Republic fell to pieces to be reassembled as the Roman Empire.

Just why the ever recurrent human quest for larger life should take on a mystical complexion at this time is a difficult matter to determine. There are certain general considerations, however, that have distinct bearing on the case. In the first place, the thought world of the average man had suddenly enlarged to proportions that were frightening. The horizon of a Syrian trader in Nero's time was vastly more inclusive than that of a Macedonian noble who started out with Philip for his conquest of Greece, and this new horizon included a far greater number of facts to be classified and accounted for, and a constantly enlarging group of problems and difficulties to be settled. This expanded thought-world of the middle of the first century was in a very chaotic state. The social structure of an earlier age had been completely wrecked. Greek democracy and Oriental despotism alike had been crushed by imperial power. National and racial distinctions, once considered very important, had been all but forgotten. Whole classes in society had been wiped out. Old things had passed away and what chiefly impressed the ordinary man about the new order of things imposed by Rome was not so much its orderliness as its newness. It is difficult, indeed, to imagine the confusion and perplexity which existed in the popular mind when men found themselves completely torn away from their old moorings, yet unaccustomed to the new social environment. The citizen of the Greek polis had lived in a friendly town that was his own; but the Roman citizen found himself bewildered in the crowded streets of a strange city that was everyman's world.

In the second place, the man of the early Empire felt that the ultimate control of his disordered universe was not at all in his own hands, but that it rested with supernatural powers on the outside. Although the people of the Roman Empire were really well equipped with social agencies new and old for the attainment of their desires, they did not themselves have much confidence in these securities. After all, these were merely human adjustments which governed one's relations with his fellow-men, whereas, according to the first-century point of view, the more important relationships of life were with the controlling powers in the supernatural realm. Whether these powers were friendly or unfriendly or both or either according to circumstances, there was great variety of opinion; but generally speaking there was no doubt of their power. The Epicureans, to be sure, considered this belief in the supernatural to be a blight on the joy of life and harmful to society. But the common man was not at all troubled by skepticism on this point. He was too much concerned with the business of establishing safe relations with the occult powers to debate the problematic social value of supernaturalism. One way be had of accomplishing this was the way of mysticism, whereby he either projected himself emotionally into the supernatural realm and so came into contact with deity, or else by magic and sacrament drew the god down into the human sphere and in this less exalted fashion realized the desired alliance. Not until this unio mystica was accomplished did many men feel completely secure in the face of the uncertainties of life.

To such a fearing world as this, which stood in abject awe of supernatural powers, the mystery religions came with the message of salvation through union with the lord of the cult. This was good news, indeed, for such an alliance robbed the unknown spiritual world of its terrors and gave the initiate the assurance of special privilege in relation to the potent beings who controlled the destinies of men. Practically, the lords of the mysteries were the most powerful spiritual beings that gentile religionists of the Graeco-Roman world were acquainted with. In the background of each of the mysteries hovered the vague form of the supreme power itself: the Anatolian Magita Mater Deum or the Ahura Mazda of the Persian system. In the foreground, ready for action, stood the mediator who chiefly made the divine power manifest in life and in nature: the youthful Attis or the invincible Mithra. The mystery gods and goddesses were also potent as netherworld divinities. Persephone reigned as queen of the dead and Osiris presided as judge of the souls of the departed. By means of initiation into their cults, the devotee was enabled to share vividly in the experiences of these divinities and even to attain realistic union with them. Thus, united with the gods themselves, the initiate was in touch with currents of supernatural power which not only operated to transform his very being but also rendered him immune from evil both in this life and in the next. In this way the mystery religious, by means of their initiations, answered to a second great demand of the age--the yearning for the mystical type of religious experience.


It should at once be noted that the mysticism of the cults was not of the intellectualized type that one discovers in the writings of Plutarch or Seneca, nor even of the refined, subjective sort, that is evident in the Hermetic writings and in Philo. It was rather of a more realistic, objective, ecstatic, and highly emotional variety. This emotional character of cult mysticism was not fortuitous, by any means, but answered directly to another one of the keenly felt social needs of the age. The first century was a time when the masses of people had a very inordinate appetite for emotional stimulation. This abnormal craving itself can be understood even when its pathological character is recognized. Directly or indirectly it was due, more than to anything else, to the terribly depressing experiences through which society had passed during the wars that filled the years immediately preceding the Christian era.

For four hundred years wars had been unceasing. Greece had no sooner finished her glorious Persian Wars than she started that inglorious internecine strife which ended immediately in the exhaustion of all and the final snuffing out of Greek freedom by Philip at Chaeronea. Alexander's stupendous world conquest had been followed by the petty struggles of the Diadochi and the Epigoni, and thus the eastern world was filled with conflicts which did not cease until Rome's universal conquest. The Romans themselves had gradually extended their rule over Italy by a process of long warfare. They had made the Mediterranean a Roman lake by fighting Carthage to a finish, and finally in their own civil wars they had deluged the whole world with blood. Directly all these military operations had entailed terrible suffering for all classes. Quite apart from the killing or the maiming of combatants there were pitiful consequences for the non-combatants. Breadwinners had been drafted into service. Crops over large areas had been destroyed. Conquered lands had been plunged into debt and bankruptcy, while thousands of men, women, and children, formerly free, had been sold as slaves. The Mediterranean world had known war at its worst, and this long series of conquests, civil wars, proscriptions, and insurrections had produced an untold amount of agony.

The indirect consequences of these military operations were quite as disastrous for the happiness of large numbers of people as were the direct results. One of the most deplorable effects was the practical destruction of the middle classes which had been the backbone of society. This left a bad social cleavage between the wealthy and aristocratic classes on the one hand, and the masses, including the slaves, on the other. Conditions were such that the classes had the opportunity of becoming more wealthy and prosperous, while the proletariat correspondingly became more destitute and wretched. Enormous sums of gold and silver, the accumulated wealth of the east, was disgorged on the Empire. This created a demand for luxuries, raised the standard of living, and multiplied the miseries of the poor. Throughout the period the number of slaves was constantly being augmented. This lowered wages and drove free laborers to the idleness of cities where they were altogether too willing to be enrolled among the state-fed.

With such an unequal distribution of the goods of life, it was inevitable that both extremes in Roman society should feel the need of special emotional uplift and stimulation. The aristocrat felt the need of it because he had pleasures too many, and the poor freeman because he had pleasures too few. In the literature of the time these differing points of view were both fully expressed. On the one hand there was disgust with life, taedium vitae, bred of selfindulgence and brought to birth by satiety. It was the weariness that comes when amusements cloy and the means of diversion seem exhausted. "To be ever feeding the thankless nature of the mind .... though after all we are never filled with the enjoyments of life .... this is to do what is told of the maidens who kept pouring water into a sieve," wrote Lucretius, depicting the mood of too many men whom he knew.

On the other hand there was genuine sensitiveness to suffering in this age born of a sympathetic understanding of its pain and an earnest attempt to provide alleviation. The demand for solace in time of calamity was so great that the office of consoler became almost a profession and the closing days of the Republic saw the development of a curious literary type, known as consolation literature. Crantor, who originated this literature, wrote a book for a bereaved parent which Cicero pronounced "a golden book, to be learned by heart," and the latter on the death of his daughter formulated a consolatio for himself. Plutarch wrote such a consolation to his wife, while Seneca, the prince of consolers, went far toward making the art a science by the psychological study of individual cases. Formulas of sympathy were developed for calamities of all sorts: for ill health, old age, financial disaster, confiscation of property, exile, and most of all for death itself. It was a period when all classes were sensitive to emotional needs, but chiefly the inarticulate masses who were most miserable and knew not how to express their misery.

Here was religion's opportunity. Some cults strove to meet it while others did not. Generally speaking the officials of state religion remained unresponsive, and the marble gods of Greece and Rome had no word for men in agony. Judaism, which had itself gone through a prolonged martyrdom, should have learned from suffering to minister to personal need, but it had not. Its hope was still a national one, not personal.

But the religions of redemption that came from the east furnished exactly the emotional satisfaction that the age demanded. Hence they were popular. They told men of savior-gods that were very human, who had come to earth and toiled and suffered with men, experiencing to an intensified degree the sufferings to which flesh is heir. These savior-gods had known the agony of parting from loved ones, of persecution, of mutilation, of death itself. In this hard way they had won salvation for their devotees and now they stood ready to help all men who had need. The rites of these mystery religions were impressively arranged to represent the sufferings and triumphs of the savior-gods. Thus it was possible for the initiate to feel as his god had felt, and sometimes more realistically, to repeat the archetypal experiences of his lord. His initiation was a time of great uplift that elevated him above commonplace worries and gave him an exalted sense of security. In after days the memory of that great event remained with him to buoy him up amid the hardships of his daily lot, or in such special crises as might come to him. The third great contemporary need which mystery initiation supplied was that of emotional stimulation through the mystical experience of contact with a sympathetic savior.


The majority of gentile religionists, however, were not satisfied with a merely emotional assurance that the desired mystical union had taken place. Something more tangible and objective was required to supplement the evidence furnished by subjective experience. This was in accord with the vivid realism of contemporary thought concerning divine beings and spiritual processes. Greeks and Romans both conceived of their gods very concretely and humanly. They gave them admirable plastic representation and sought to secure their favor by rites that were correspondingly realistic. At the beginning of the imperial period when the uncertainties of life made men feel more dependent than ever on supernatural assistance, the operations whereby they strove to assure themselves of the desired aid became, if anything, more realistic than ever.

Records of the Augustan revival in religion illustrate this tendency in a hundred different ways. We read of statues whose lips, hands, and feet were worn smooth by the persistent and devout osculations of worshipers. To the naive thought of uneducated people these statues were identified with the divine beings they represented and were treated accordingly. High and low alike shared in the realistic point of view. The Emperor Galba kept a necklace of pearls and precious stones to adorn his favorite goddess Fortuna on his Tusculan estate. When be suddenly decided to give it to Venus instead, Fortuna appeared to him in a dream and threatened to withdraw her favors. In genuine fright Galba rushed off to Tusculum to make amends to Fortuna. Seneca, on a chance visit to the capital, was aroused to indignation when he saw the statues of the Roman trinity attended as if they were living persons and found women there awaiting the pleasure of Jupiter because they believed themselves loved by him. Philosophers generally had as little patience with these practices as Seneca had; but occasionally there was a Maximus of Tyre who would speak a tolerant word for these ingenuous expressions of religious devotion.

In such an age and amid people who thought in these vivid terms, the rites of religion, in order to be satisfying, had to partake of the same pictorial quality. They had to give actual and dramatic representation of the processes they were intended to typify and induce. This was what the ceremonies of the mystery cults did, and this was another reason for the great attractive power of the cults. Most of their rites had come down in traditional forms from an immemorial antiquity. Originally performed among primitive people in order to assure the revival of vegetable life in springtime, they were enacted in these later imperial days for the higher purpose of assuring the rebirth of the human spirit. Yet, among the masses at least, the efficacy of these ceremonials was as little questioned as it had been in their original setting.

The baptismal rite, in particular, whether by water or blood, was regarded as marking the crucial moment in a genuinely regenerative process. Once reborn the initiates were treated as such; their birthday was celebrated and they were nourished in a manner appropriate for infants. Childish rites they seem, yet to the uneducated and simpleminded of the first century A.D. they were fraught with spiritual significance. The semblance of mystic marriage and the partaking of consecrated foods were other realistic sacraments in which the neophyte found assurance that he was really and vitally united with his lord and endowed with the divine spirit. What gives the modern student pause when he is inclined to smile at the naivete of these practices is the sincere conviction of pagan initiates that their spiritual transformation was not only represented but was also really accomplished by these dramatic ceremonies. By means of initiatory rites of great impressiveness the mystery cults were enabled to satisfy another conspicuous demand of the age, the desire for realistic guaranties in religion.


The personal transformation which was the initial feature of cult mysticism had its ethical as well as its religious aspect, and this responded to a demand of the age for a blend of ethics and religion. It is somewhat difficult to define the ethical interests of gentile religionists in the first century, for the early imperial period was a time of great moral disorder and confusion, paralleling the stress and strain in other areas of life. This moral anarchy is comprehensible, for it grew out of the same social conditions that determined religious developments in this period. In the polis of Hellenic days, political, moral, and religious duties were all integrated, and the citizen found sufficient guidance for the performance of his obligations in community institutions, ancestral customs, and state laws. These had divine sanction for him and no other authority was needed. With the wrecking of that corporate life, however, morals were divorced from politics and the individual was left to himself without external authority to guide his conduct. The continuous social upheavals of Hellenistic and republican times, the free mingling of populations in commerce and conquest, and the enormous increase of slavery furthered the process of cutting thousands of human beings loose from moral restraints. No wonder men were groping after new norms for the conduct of life at this time!

It is ordinarily assumed that society in the middle of the first century was conspicuously lacking in ethical interests and had sunk to the lowest point of moral degradation. This impression is gained chiefly from two sources, from Jewish and Christian writers on the one hand and from Roman satirists on the other. Obviously, however, the former were prejudiced witnesses from the start, and the latter confined themselves to a one-sided view of only one class in Roman society. When the student turns aside from such biased and limited views to consider the general trend in society as a whole, he discovers that it was not only a period of moral anarchy but of ethical awakening as well. Interest was alive on moral questions. It had shifted from politics to ethics. Philosophy had come down out of its theoretical basket amid the clouds of speculation and was walking on solid earth once more. It was undertaking to do for men what religion too frequently did not do--to give guidance in problems of conduct. There were moralists in plenty who were castigating vice and holding up models of virtue for imitation.

Almost every characteristic vice in Roman society was being met with the most vigorous protests and sometimes by active measures for amelioration. Slavery was a curse to that society, cultivating a cruel spirit of indifference to human suffering. But brutal masters were in a minority, and slaves had the right to acquire property and purchase their freedom. Legal enactment assured them of protection against cruelty, and an increasingly humane public opinion prevented grosser abuses. It is true that Roman amusements were debasing. The theater was obscene and the amphitheater with its gladiatorial combats was beastly; but Cicero testifies that many regarded the amphitheater as cruel and inhuman;, while Plutarch, Seneca, and even Petronius joined in a chorus of personal condemnation of gladiatorial combats. It is true that marriage at this time was carelessly contracted and easily annulled; but inscriptions and literature both prove that marriages of love were at least as common as marriages of convenience--consider Pliny's graceful love letters to his Calpurnia and the Laudatio Turiae, which tells of forty-one years of happy married life. Moreover, there was an impressive and unanimous demand on the part of all moralists and philosophers that equal virtue should be required of men as of women. It is true that there was much infanticide in Roman society. Children were exposed and abortion was freely practiced. But Paulus, the jurist, branded these practices as assassination and "against the voice of nature and the voice of conscience." Moreover, one of the primary concerns of moralists was for the exemplary training of children. It is only too true, also, that the Romans knew of nameless sins. Yet the philosophers did not hesitate to denounce the epicenes who practiced them, and Dio Chrysostom was only the first to attack prostitution as a legalized vice. A balanced view of the whole social situation therefore shows high ideals and exceptional interest in moral problems.

There was at this time a particular demand for greater concreteness in ethical teaching. Abstract instruction was not popular, but the formulation of definite precepts was desired instead; hence the teachers of the time studied the writings of philosophers and moralists to find texts and maxims to use with their pupils. To some, ideals seemed more useful than particular precepts. So careful catalogues were made of virtues and vices, and the former were summarized in certain cardinal qualities especially to be desired. These ideals, however, proved generally too elusive, and there was a call for living examples which could be referred to as demonstrations of the practicability of ideals. This became the great teaching point of the age--the citation of examples. Each system had its own particular hero, Orpheus or Pythagoras; but Socrates, most of all, came to be regarded as a personification of the ideal for humanity. Seneca urged his friend Lucilius to keep before his mind constantly the picture of some upright man and to live always as if in his presence. The practical Roman regarded this as an excellent method in education and he had his sons taught by appeal to the examples of the past. Biographies were written with this didactic purpose in view. Notably was this the case with Varro and Plutarch in composing their parallel lives of Greeks and Romans. The first century A.D. was an age of hero worship when concrete, living examples were called for.

Stoicism, the leading philosophy of the Empire, was in a strategic position to meet the general ethical demands of the time. It had its first development in Greece just after the old landmarks of Hellenic morality had collapsed; for it was in 320 B.C. that Zeno, of Citium, arrived in Athens where he was to end his days lecturing in the Stoa Poicile. As a thoroughly Hellenized system, it appeared in Rome where it was disseminated by Panaetius through the Scipionic circle. Its Semitic earnestness accorded well with the stern severity of the old Roman character. Seneca, the Spanish prime minister, and Epictetus, the Phrygian slave, are outstanding figures showing the hold that Stoicism had on all classes in Roman society at this time. With such a cosmopolitan background, Stoicism was well furnished to supply the Roman world with new ethical norms consonant with the spirit and needs of the age.

It essayed to do so on the purely naturalistic basis furnished by human nature itself. According to Stoic teaching the chief end of existence was virtuous living, further defined as living in accordance with the dictates of reason. This brought all rational beings under a single ethical standard, at once individualistic and universal in scope. It made all men the sharers in a common world citizenship. Thus the good of every creature became the individual's good, and their hurt became his own. The call for explicit precepts of a moral character was met by Stoic manuals that are still highly valued. Its ideal of virtue was analyzed into component elements, wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance, and these in turn were extensively subdivided. There was no lack of ideals in Stoicism. It had its ideal wise man, who acted without desire and made no mistakes; but Epictetus and his contemporaries were constantly referring rather to the example of Socrates--so concrete were they in their teaching.

The Stoics, more than others, were outspoken in their denunciation of social evils. Their antidote for slavery was deliverance by right thinking and complete indifference to outward circumstances. The virtuous man only is free and the only slave is he who is in bondage to bad habits, so the Stoic taught. It was the Stoic Seneca who said plainly, in reference to a double standard of morality, "You know it is injustice to demand fidelity from your wife while you seduce another man's wife," and other Stoic utterances as pointed might be quoted in regard to gladiatorial combats, prostitution, paiderastia, and the other vices of Nero's time. The Stoic teachers, who served as moral directors for the rich and missionaries to the masses, knew better than any others of their day what the moral weaknesses of their fellow-men were.

For him who had the will to endure its rigors, the ideal of Stoicism was satisfying. But that ideal was strenuous, almost impossible, and inhumanly high. The true Stoic must always follow the pure light of reason and be guided by duty, not desire. Passions must be exterminated and emotions crushed as perturbing influences which would hinder achievement. To attain the ideal, man must depend on himself alone, for the Stoic knew of no power external to himself that could help him. In the struggle for well-being, he had to act as his own savior. The ethic of Stoicism was completely rational and naturalistic. It lacked the authority of revelation and had no other sanction than that furnished by human nature and experience. In its very strength was the fatal weakness of Stoicism; it did not deal in supernaturalism, and that was the only coinage that had general acceptance in the first-century world.

Conditions of life were such at that time that most men did not have confidence in their own unaided ability to achieve character. They had "lost nerve," to paraphrase Gilbert Murray's expression, and they looked away to the supernatural realm for the powers that controlled personal conduct as well as the more ultimate destinies of mankind. What the men of the first century wanted was not so much ideals, but the power to realize those ideals; not a code of morals, but supernatural sanctions for morality. In the last analysis, it was the divine will, and not human welfare, that was the generally accepted criterion whereby the validity of any ethical system was tested. Accordingly, the religion which could furnish supernatural guaranties along with its ethical ideals hid a preferred claim to first-century loyalty.

The stern morality of Judaism, like that of the Stoa, was not unattractive to many Gentiles; but the element that fascinated them was not the inherent excellence of Jewish rules for living but the fact that they had venerable sanctions bearing the impress of divine authority. The Law of the Jews was quoted as the ipse dixit of Yahweh himself and the scriptures were referred to as authentic documents proving the genuineness of the representation. Such confirmation was impressive to men who were seeking for divine authority to make moral conduct obligatory. The religion of the Egyptian Hermes, also, was one that offered supernatural guaranties for its ethical ideals. In the process of Hermetic rebirth, the powers of God drove out the hordes of vices and left the regenerate individual divinely empowered for right living. That was Mithraism's point of strength also and accounted not a little for the vogue it continued to enjoy some time after the beginning of the Christian era. The "commandments" of Mithraism were believed to be divinely accredited; for had not the deity himself revealed them to the ancient Magi? One of the chief reasons why the high Mithraic ideals of purity, truth, and righteousness had real attraction was because Mithra himself was the unconquerable champion of these ideals and the ready helper of men who were willing to join with him in the eternal fight of right against wrong, good against evil. Mithraism was the outstanding example of a mystery religion which gave supernatural sanctions to the demands of plain morality.

The mysticism of the mysteries came in effectively at just this point to give both realistic content and divine authorization to the ethic of the brotherhood. The ideals of the group found personification and embodiment in the divine lord or lady who was the object of cult worship. Osiris was the model righteous man who functioned in divinized state as the judge of the departed. Hence the Isiac initiate, reborn as a new Osiris, was supposed himself to exhibit the Osirian type of righteousness. So, too, in the other mystery systems, the initiate realistically united with his lord and, actually transformed by virtue of that union, had his ideal incorporated within himself as a part of his N-ery being. Thus, in the end, mystical experience became the theoretic basis and practical incitement to good conduct. In this close articulation of mysticism and morality the cults made all important and distinctive contribution to the ethical life of the age.

It has been a general habit among Christian writers in both ancient and modern times to depreciate the ethical significance of the mystery religions and to emphasize instead the ceremonialism and theurgy which characterized their cult practices. This habit developed first of all from the apologetic tendency to exalt Christianity by damning its rivals as much as possible. A fairer view of the case reveals the fact that in the first century the well-developed mystery religions like nascent Christianity were vividly responsive to the awakened conscience of the period and were reinterpreting their rites accordingly. Moral as well as spiritual cleansing was attributed to ablutions and lustrations, and ethical as well as essential regeneration was sought in the bath of the taurobolium. According to Celsus--and Origen has no word to say in contradiction--the Eleusinian herald demanded of candidates for initiation not only clean hands and intelligible speech but also purity of conscience and a good life. This is an eloquent contemporary tribute to the moral influence of the mysteries. Yet it is only one instance out of many that might be cited.

When the mystery religions are viewed in their contemporary relationships, it is possible to distinguish in each instance the peculiar contribution of each to the moral development of the Mediterranean peoples. Orphism, true to its initial character as a reform movement, moralized the process of metempsychosis and placed exaggerated emphasis on the idea of retribution in the future. Mithraism, with its ideal of aggressive, militant virtue, had great appeal for practical-minded people in the Roman world. Isiac brotherhoods, with their restrained asceticism, registered characteristic protest against the immoral practices of the period. Each cult in its own way lent the sanctions of an ancient religious system to the demands of contemporary morality and in so doing made adjustment to the ethical requirements of the age.


The ultimate pledge that the mystery religions made to gentile religionists pertained not to the present but to the future. It was the assurance of a happy immortality. That was a matter about which there was very general and very genuine interest in the first-century world. Whatever attitude a man might adopt on the question of continued existence after death, he could not well avoid the issue. The inevitable fact of death, together with the palpable injustices of first-century life, forced it upon his attention. As a symptom of the widespread interest in this problem the great variety of opinion which existed in educated circles may be cited. Some there were who succeeded in maintaining an absolute and consistent negative on the question. Others were just as positive in affirming iinmortality. Still others wavered between the two opinions.

There were philosophic sects which definitely and finally rejected all future hope. The Peripatetics, true to the scientific spirit of their founder, refused to speculate about the existence of a soul that their reason could not conceive or define. The Skeptics, true to their name, and the Academics, now turned skeptical, either doubted the possibility of a future life altogether or else suspended judgment on the problem. But these schools were not of great impor-

tance in the early Empire. The Epicurean philosophy, however, wss still influential, and its advocates were sincere and thoroughgoing opponents of any belief in immortality. Holding consistently to the atomistic materialism of Democritus and Epicurus, they maintained that the soul came into existence at conception, that it grew with the body, and at the body's death it passed into nothingness once more, dissipated like the other bodily elements. This annihilation the Epicureans did not dread because death destroyed all sensibility. On the contrary, they warmly praised their master for liberating men from the terror of future punishment and teaching them that death was not a frightful thing but a blessing. Lucretius, in pure Epicurean vein, exulted in the opportunity of driving from men's hearts "that dread of Acheron which troubles human life to its inmost depths, and overspreads everything with the blackness of death, and permits no pleasure to be pure and unalloyed."

There were not a few both among the high and the lowly who were attracted by this article of Epicurean faith and made it their own. According to Sallust, no less exalted a personage than Julius Caesar, the pontiff of Roman religion, opposed the death penalty for the Catilinarian conspirators because, he said, "Death puts a period to all human ills and beyond the grave there is no opportunity for either anxiety or joy." The elder Pliny, a most useful and industrious citizen whose lot was a very favorable one, was vehement in his rejection of the idea of a future life. To him it was an invention of human vanity that robbed death of its virtue and doubled the pain of dying. Latin poets gave graceful and memorable expression to similar views. Carpe diem was the motto that Horace recommended. Catullus, at his brother's grave, took an everlasting farewell of him, and he anticipated that sometime night would close on his love for Lesbia also: "Suns can set and rise again, but we, when our brief light is extinguished, must sleep for an eternal night."

That Epicurean ideas were disseminated among the lower strata of society is shown by rude and simple grave inscriptions, many of which express unbelief in any future existence. "We are mortal; we are not immortal," was the terse confessional of one. This idea was reiterated in more extended form, emphasizing the thought that man returns to the same sort of non-existence from which he came: "Once I had no existence; now I have none. I am not aware of it, I care not." "We are and we were nothing. See, reader, how swiftly we mortals go back from nothingness to nothingness." In some instances the state of non-existence was contrasted with the conditions of earthly life to the disadvantage of the latter. The following is a jocose example: "What remains of man, my bones, rests sweetly here. I no longer have fear of sudden starvation; I am exempt from attacks of gout; my body is no longer pledged for rent; and I enjoy perpetual and free hospitality." In some cases, however, the contrast was in favor of this life; for the advice, "Eat, drink, be merry, come!" was many times repeated among grave inscriptions. Such epigraphs testify to a vulgar and sensuous deterioration of original Epicureanism during this period. But the really pathetic maxim among them all was one that was so often repeated it was sometimes represented by initial letters only: "I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care." This was an epigraphic formula frequently used for slaves and gladiators to whom death must have come as a blessed release. Inscriptions of this general character indicate the acceptance of the Epicurean solution by quite a number among the lower classes. Yet, even so, the proportion of such inscriptions was not large in comparison with those which expressed hope regarding the future.

There were many among the cultivated classes and more among the masses to whom the negative answer of Epicureanism was less than satisfying. Those who were philosophically inclined turned backward for the confirmation of their faith to the classical arguments of "divine Plato" who had made the first great attempt at a rationalization of the belief in immortality. Cato of Utica, who by his death became an ideal figure for later Stoicism, spent the night before his suicide in reading the Phaedo of Plato. This same book was the last consolation of many another man who was the victim of proscription or of imperial tyranny. Cicero testified to the lasting influence of Plato in his day. There were many others also who like Cicero preferred to be wrong with the Greek idealist on the question of immortality rather than right with those who criticized him.

One sect in particular, the Neo-Pythagoreans, held Plato in special reverence and granted him a place next in honor to the founder of their order. These strange sectaries substantiated the belief in immortality by the authority of a revelation in definite scriptural form, bearing the names of Pythagoras and Plato. In detail their beliefs and practices were like those of their predecessors, the Pythagoreans of south Italy and the Orphics of Greece. They believed the soul to be divine and therefore immortal. By generation the soul was imprisoned in the body, and so long as it remained there it was in danger of corruption and of successive sojourns in this evil world. The whole aim of their practice was to secure the soul's liberation from the body and from the cycle of physical rebirths. By ritual purifications, moral discipline, and the practice of piety they believed this could be accomplished; so that, when the soul was freed at death it would ascend through the heavenly spheres to dwell with the blessed gods. To the Neo-Pythagoreans, death itself was a spiritual rebirth to immortality. In one of the most familiar documents of the Augustan religious revival, the sixth book of the Aeneid, the court poet of the Roman Empire gave lasting literary expression to the revived Pythagorean hope. This pagan apocalypse is a curious medley of Orphic-Pythagorean beliefs with an admixture of Platonic and Stoic ideas and various other elements more primitive; but it does give a vivid and picturesque impression of hopes and convictions that were cherished more or less extensively by Vergil's contemporaries.

A large body of first-century thinkers, however, were not satisfied with either the fantastic beliefs of the Neo-Pythagorean sect or the nihilism of Epicurus. Many of the most earnest souls of the time wavered in doubt, inclined toward belief, and found in the varying and ill-defined positions of Stoicism a harbor of refuge. At one point the Stoics agreed with the Epicureans. They had no fear of Hell. "There is no prison house, no lake of fire or river of forgetfulness, no judgment seat, no renewal of the rule of tyrants." On one other point they were generally agreed among themselves, that the ultimate destiny of the soul after death was reabsorption into the primal divine substance whence it had originally come. In Epictetus' memorable phrase, the soul was "a fragment of God." It was "fiery spirit" (pneuma puroses), and by virtue of its very origin and constitution it could have no other end than to return to its divine source. To quote a Stoic grave inscription: "The holy spirit which you bore has escaped from your body. The body remains here and is like the earth. The spirit is naught else but God." Most Stoics were of the opinion that one day the universe would be reduced by general conflagration to its primal fiery state and a new cycle of existence would then begin. The question was, What would be the fate and condition of souls in the interim? Here most of the leaders disagreed. The older Stoics had little to say on the subject. Under the influence of Pythagoreanism and astral mysticism, however, the later Stoics became more definite. Posidonius, for example, was sure they would pass through a period of purification, and rising to heaven's height, would delight themselves by watching the stars go around. In general, then, the Stoics allowed for only a limited future existence before the soul merged once more into God.

Among the educated classes of the first century, therefore, one finds all shades of belief and unbelief, but almost universal interest in the question of the future. There were many who like Cicero, or Seneca, included within their own experience a changing series of beliefs. In the days of their happiness neither of these philosophers had much concern with the subject. But as years brought wider contacts and misfortunes of one sort or another, they both developed a more positive attitude. In 45 B.C. when Cicero was having his troubles in public affairs, he suffered a cruel blow in the loss of his only daughter Tullia. The bitterness of this personal experience persuaded him that his daughter still lived among the gods, and he resolved to erect in her memory not a tomb but a shrine. Writing to his friend Atticus from gloomy Astura on the shore of the Pomptine marshes, be confessed this determination, half apologetically:

"I wish to have a shrine built, and that wish cannot be rooted out of my heart. I am anxious to avoid any likeness to a tomb .... in order to attain as nearly as possible to a deification. This I could do if I built it at the villa itself, but I dread changes of owners. Wherever I construct it on the land I think I could secure that posterity should respect its sanctity."

In the Consolatio addressed to himself at about the same time, he dwelt upon the divine and eternal nature of the soul in words suggesting Pythagorean inclinations. Cicero, then, was a type of the educated man who was not ashamed to stand in the crowd of those who "were stretching out their hands in longing toward the farther shore.

If there were doubts among the educated on the question of the future life, the masses generally were not perturbed by them. So far as we can gather, they had much more faith in immortality than their leaders were inclined to have. Plutarch maintained in so many words that the Epicurean negation of the future hope was repugnant to the majority. In contrast with the skeptical and materialistic epitaphs already cited, there are many touching inscriptions expressing confidence in immortality and reunion. One found on the grave of a married couple represents the wife as saying: "I am waiting for my husband." Generally speaking, the more traditional Greek and Roman ideas regarding the future seem to have persisted among the common people. Take, for illustration, a simple item of popular belief, the myth of Charon, that "grim ferryman of the muddy pool" to whom every dead man must pay an obol for passage money. Lucian said of this belief: "The mass is so preoccupied with the idea that, when a man dies, his relatives hasten to put an obol in his mouth to pay the ferryman for his passage across the Styx, without first finding out what money is current in the underworld." Further arrangement was made for the future happiness of the dead by supplying them with the things they had needed or enjoyed most in this life. Hence, the belongings of the deceased were frequently cremated or buried with them, and sometimes definite provision was made for this in first-century wills. With an acceptance of the idea that the soul continued to exist after the death of the body, men longed for the assurance that this future existence was a happy, and not a miserable, one.

What religions were there in the first-century world to give men assurances in regard to the future of the individual? Not the new emperor worship, surely; that was concerned with a present salvation within the empire. Not Judaism, either, for Jews were still tenacious of their racial consciousness, and their future hope was predominantly national and Messianic.

The one group of first-century religions which did specialize in future guaranties were the mystery cults from Greece and the Orient. Originally intended to assure the miracle of reviving vegetation in the springtime, they were perfectly adapted to guarantee the miracle of the spirit's immortality after physical death. These were the cults which in the form of Dionysiac and Orphic brotherhoods had first brought the promise of a happy future life to Greece in the religious revival of the sixth century B.C. But Greeks at that time were too well satisfied with a life of present salvation to be much concerned with the future. The Orphic teachings regarding immortality, however, were taken up by the Pythagoreans and moralized by Pindar and rationalized by Plato. In Hellenistic times the Greek cults merged with similar religions from the east which offered equivalent guaranties, and in this syncretized form thev came into their own. In the early imperial period they were more popular than ever, for they gave positive and definite answer to the questioning of the common man about the future. Their answer had the authority of revelation and it included the guaranty of divine aid in the realization of that blessed after-life which they vividly depicted to their devotees. Altogether the mysteries were unusually well equipped to meet the contemporary demand for assurances regarding the future.

When consideration is given to the fundamental character of the interests represented by the mystery religions, one can well understand their popularity in the Graeco-Roman world. In an era of individualism, when men were no longer looking to religion for guaranties of a racial or national order, the mystery cults offered the boon of personal transformation through participating in rites of initiation. At a time when men were seeking a larger life through contact with supernatural powers, the mysteries guaranteed absolute union with the divine beings who controlled the universe. In an age when men were craving emotional uplift, mystery initiation gave them such encouragement as they could scarcely find elsewhere. At a period when realism characterized thought in all departments of life, the religions of redemption offered men realistic rites to guarantee the actuality of spiritual processes. When supernatural sanctions were sought to validate ethical ideals, the mystery cults provided a unique combination of mysticism and morality that was practically effective. When, as never before, people were questioning about the future fate of the individual soul, the mysteries, through initiation, gave guaranty of a happy immortality. At every one of these points the gentile religions of redemption were effectively meeting the needs of large numbers of people in Graeco-Roman society.