What Did “Pagan” Mean In Ancient Rome?

Ancient Rome

Evolution of the Term “Pagan”

The word pagan itself only began to circulate widely in the 370s AD. It was a word used in a religious sense only by Latin Christians. And, Hellenes, meaning followers of the religion of the ancient Greeks, was the term used by Greek Christians.

Originally, pagan had nothing to do with religion. The term pagan is derived from paganus, a Latin word, which originally meant a mere civilian – a person who did not enjoy the honors and prestige attached to service of the emperor. Christians used the term to brand those who did not serve the true emperor, Christ. Such persons (pagans) were outsiders – they were not fully enrolled members of the empire of God.

Pagan was not necessarily a hate word. It was often used in a relatively neutral manner as a convenient, idiomatic term for non-Christians.

Was Symmachus a Pagan?

Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (345-402 AD), better known simply as Symmachuswas a Roman statesman, orator, and man of letters. He sought to preserve the traditional religions of Rome at a time when the aristocracy was converting to Christianity. He “worshipped the gods” as he had always done.

Symmachus was the first person of Roman nobility who was forced to adjust to what amounted to an unprecedented situation. He was being labeled by others in confessional terms as a pagan, yet it wasn’t a label he would have chosen for himself. He did not see his fellow Romans (Christians or non-Christians) as divided between insiders and outsiders in this sectarian manner.

Whatever their beliefs, Symmachus wished to treat members of his class as peers held together by Rome’s old-fashioned “religion of friendship.” Symmachus was neither inert nor oblivious to the world in which he lived. He simply had better things to do than apply religious labels to his friends and colleagues.

Being Aware of Historical Trends

When considering how use of the term pagan evolved, it can be seen that we moderns are the heirs of what originally were novel Christian attitudes, which only became fully public in the 370s and 380s AD.

Through the Eye of a Needle
Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD
Peter Brown

 


Peter Brown
Peter Brown
Born 1935

Peter Brown is Rollins Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. He is credited with having brought coherence to the field of Late Antiquity, and is sometimes regarded as the inventor of the field.

Brown’s work has concerned, in particular, the religious culture of the later Roman Empire and early medieval Europe, and the relation between religion and society. He is a prolific author and editor, and has won prizes in the field of ancient history.

Books Peter Brown has written include:

Alchemy – Our Quest for Immortality

Alchemy Transformation

Origin of Alchemy

The name alchemy itself reflects the art’s mysterious origins. We have inherited the word from the Arabic al-kimia, as it was the Islamic world that did most to keep its practice alive during the early Middle Ages. However, the Arabs took the word from the Greek word chemeia, when they occupied Alexandria in the seventh century. And, chemeia, which is also the origin of the word chemistry, meant “those who have knowledge of the Egyptian arts.” As is often the case with the quest for immortality, all roads lead back to the Nile.

Two Goals of Alchemy

The oldest mention of alchemy in history is in the records of the first-century BC Chinese historian Sima Qian. He describes how the royal court alchemist sought to transform cinnabar, a bright red mercury ore, into gold – and that if this was used for eating and drinking it would ensure “you will never die.” Thus, from its earliest days, alchemy has been associated with the pursuit of two goals united by the idea of transformation: the transformation of base metals into gold and of mortal humans into immortals.

Achieving Immortality

Although now more associated with the transformation of base metals into gold, most alchemists would have considered at the very least that they were inextricably linked, and very often, as in Sima Qian’s description, that the production of gold was merely the means to the end of achieving immortality.

When aspiring to live forever, the elixir was whatever helped to stave off aging and death a little bit longer, and its pursuit encompassed what we would now consider to be very disparate traditions, from medicine to magic and science to religion. Yet, despite these many strands, the quest for the elixir has come to be known by one name: alchemy.

Taoism and Life Extension 

In China, at the time of the First Emperor (220-210 BC), alchemy was a vital part of Taoism – the prevalent religious-philosophical system. Taoist practitioners developed life-extension techniques that are now, over 2000 years later, continuing to prosper: meditation, breathing exercises, the gymnastics of tai chi and qigong, and the consumption of tea, ginseng and many other herbs and minerals. One of Taoism’s core texts, known as The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon, remains the central source for Chinese traditional medicine.

Immortality book
Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization
Stephen Cave

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Stephen Cave
Stephen Cave

Stephen Cave is Executive Director of the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence and Senior Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge. He has a PhD in Philosophy from Cambridge.  Before turning to full-time writing, he worked as a diplomat. He writes regularly for the Financial Times and also contributes to the New York Times.


 The 4 Stories We Tell Ourselves About Death – TED Talk by Stephen Cave

How Did Ancient People Use Calendars?

Oldest Calendars

The oldest ‘calendars‘ are vast archaeological sites that aligned posts or megaliths (giant stones) with the rising of the Sun or Moon on significant dates, such as the summer or winter solsticeThe earliest structures built as calendars seem to be designed to help calculate the solar and lunar months. Priest-astronomers used these. 

Prehistoric astronomers left no user manuals for their monuments – their uses had to be rediscovered by archaeoastronomersarchaeologists with knowledge of astronomy. 

Warren Field, Scotland, found in 2004, is the earliest site found so far. It tracks events some 10,000 years ago.

Development of Accurate Calendars

Calendar development was often driven by the need to fix religious festivals and observance, an impulse that continued with the formation of new religions such as Christianity and Islam. Both put astronomy to use in this way.

Arab astronomers and engineers were zealous in their pursuit of improved methods for keeping time so that daily prayers could be received by the devout at the right time.

Time-keeping on a larger scale was essential in scheduling religious festivals.

Lunar Calendars 

Time is naturally divided astronomically by the Earth’s orbit around the Sun (a year), the Earth’s rotation (a day) and the phases of the Moon. A lunar month (a full cycle from one new or full moon to the next is approximately 29 1/2 days. A year is 365 1/4 days.

Inconveniently, a year is 12.37 lunar months long. For early societies, a lunar month was a useful and countable period of time, one that could be easily observed and checked just by looking up at the night sky.

But if you use 12  lunar months as the basis of your year, the calendar will drift out of sync quite quickly. It will be a month out after only 3 years, and 6 months out after 18 years. To avoid this, an extra (intercalary) month has to be added every few years.

Egyptian Calendars

The ancient Egyptians began their year with the rising of Sirius (which they called Sopdet) above the horizon before sun rise.

  • System dates to c. 3000 BC.
  • Divided year into 365 days.
  • Used two different calendars.
  • Sirius, a stable star, and the brightest star in the night sky, was the basis for the Egyptian calendar.
  • Ptolemaic rulers depended on calendars.

Other cultures developed independent calendars, notably China and Mesoamerican (Central American) civilizations.

Chinese Yin-Yang Li Traditional Calendar

Origins of the Chinese calendar can be traced back to 14th century BC, though legend says it was invented in 2637 BC.

  • Literally ‘heaven-Earth’ calendar.
  • Used alongside imported calendars such as the Hindu calendar.
  • Used until 1912, when China officially adopted the Western Gregorian calendar.

How the World Works: Astronomy: From Plotting the Stars to Pulsars and Black Holes
How the World Works: Astronomy: From Plotting the Stars to Pulsars and Black Holes 

Anne Rooney

Background on Anne Rooney

Why is Easter Celebrated on Different Calendar Dates From Year To Year?

Easter

Standardization of Easter Celebration Date

The Catholic Church fixes the date of Easter, its celebration to mark the resurrection of Christ, using a method set out in AD 325 by the Council of Nicaea. In the first centuries AD, Easter was celebrated on different days by different groups of Christians, the Council of Nicaea sought to standardize it.

Role of Full Moon

Easter is now celebrated on the first Sunday after the full moon occurring on or after the spring equinox. Early Christians couldn’t simply wait to find out when the full moon would fall, then quickly celebrate Easter. They had to fit in Lent – 40 days of fasting – immediately beforehand, so had to know several weeks in advance when that full moon would fall, a task that could only be achieved by keeping astronomical records and projecting into the future.

Easter Dates 

How the World Works: Astronomy: From Plotting the Stars to Pulsars and Black Holes
How the World Works: Astronomy: From Plotting the Stars to Pulsars and Black Holes
Anne Rooney

Background on Anne Rooney

Persian Road System – The World’s Original Information Superhighway

Persian Empire Royal Road System

The ultimate basis of the Persian Empire’s greatness was not its bureaucracy, nor even its armies, but its roads the world’s original information superhighway. It’s no wonder control of such a service by Darius, the Great King, should have overawed his subjects, and struck them as the surest gauge and manifestation of Persian power.

Persia’s road system, known as the Royal Road, provided the immensity of the empire’s body with its nervous system, along which news was perpetually flowing, from synapse to synapse, to and from the brain. 

The distances were routinely annihilated by royal couriers. Every evening, after a hard day’s ride, the messenger would find a posting station waiting for him, equipped with a bed, provisions and a fresh horse for the morning.

A truly urgent message, one brought at a gallop through storms and the dead of night, might arrive in Persepolis from the Aegean in under two weeks. This was an incredible, almost magical, degree of speed. Nothing to equal it had ever been known before.

Persian Road System

Access to the Road System

Access to the road system was ferociously restricted. No one could set foot on it without a pass, a viyataka.  Mere possession of such a pass was a mark of prestige. So tightly controlled were the itineraries of travelers on the roads that those who dawdled on the way and failed to arrive at a given destination on an alloted date could expect to forfeit their rations for the night.

Those who traveled on the roads without a viyataka pass would not merely go hungry, but very quickly be hunted down and killed. Even mail if it were sent without royal approval would be destroyed. Only the most cunning could hope to evade the vigilance of the highway patrols.

Immensity of the Persian Empire

The first dynasty of the Persian Empire was created by Achaemenids, established by Cyrus the Great in 550 BCE with the conquest of the MedianLydian and Babylonian empires. It covered much of the Ancient world and controlled the largest percentage of the earth’s population in history when it was conquered by Alexander the Great.

Persian Empire
………………The Persian Empire

Darius, the Great King, ruled the Persian Empire at its peak, from 552-486 BCE (36 years), when it included a vast area, including: much of West Asia, the Caucasus, parts of the Balkans (ThraceMacedonia and Paeonia), most of the Black Sea coastal regions, parts of the North CaucasusCentral Asia, as far as the Indus Valley in the far east, and portions of north and northeast Africa including Egypt (Mudrâya), eastern Libya and coastal Sudan.

Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West
Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West
Tom Holland

 

 


Tom Holland
Tom Holland

born 1968

. Tom Holland website
. Wikipedia

Tom Holland is a British writer and popular historian. He has published several non-academic works on classical and medieval history. In addition to his writing work, he has worked with BBC, adapting Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides and Virgil for TV documentaries also focusing on history.

Holland lives in London with his wife and two daughters. He is a keen cricket fan and member of the Authors XI cricket team.

Books Tom Holland has written include: