Religious Syncretism In The Thir
In the third century religious syncretism took two leading forms--the
Mithraic worship, which spread rapidly throughout the Empire, and the
fashionable interest in novel religions fostered by the imperial court.
Mithraism was especially prevalent in the army, and at army posts have
been found numerous remains of sanctuaries, inscriptions, etc. It was by
far the purest of the religions that invaded the Roman Empire, and drew
its leading ideas from Persian sources. The fashionable court interest in
novel religions seems not to have amounted to much as a positive religious
force, which Mithraism certainly was, though on account of it Christianity
was protected and even patronized by the ladies of the imperial household.
Among the works produced by this interest was the Life of Apollonius of
Tyana, written by Philostratus at the command of the Empress Julia Domna.
Apollonius was a preacher or teacher of ethics and the Neo-Pythagorean
philosophy in the first century, ob. A. D. 97.
Additional source material: Philostratus, Life of Apollonius
(the latest English translation, by F. C. Conybeare, with Greek
text in the Loeb Classical Library, 1912).
Mithraic Prayer, Albrecht Dietrich, Eine Mithrasliturgie, Leipsic, 1903.
The following prayer is the opening invocation of what appears to
be a Mithraic liturgy, and may date from a period earlier than the
fourth century. It gives, as is natural, no elaborated statement
of Mithraic doctrine, but, as in all prayer, much is implied in
the forms used and the spirit of the religion breathed through it.
The combination has already begun as is shown by the doctrine of
the four elements. It should be added that Professor Cumont does
not regard it as a Mithraic liturgy at all, but accounts for the
distinct mention of the name Mithras, which is to be found in some
parts, to a common tendency of semi-magical incantations to employ
as many deities as possible.
First Origin of my origin, first Beginning of my beginning, Spirit of
Spirit, first of the spirit in me. Fire which to compose me has been given
of God, first of the fire in me. Water of water, first of the water in me.
Earthy Substance of earthy substance, first of the earthy substance, the
entire body of me, N. N. son of N. N., completely formed by an honorable
arm and an immortal right hand in the lightless and illuminated world, in
the inanimated and the animated. If it seem good to you to restore me to
an immortal generation, who am held by my underlying nature, that after
this present need which presses sorely upon me I may behold the immortal
Beginning with the immortal Spirit, the immortal Water, the Solid and the
Air, that I may be born again, by the thought, that I may be consecrated
and the holy Spirit may breathe in me, that I may gaze with astonishment
at the holy Fire, that I may look upon abysmal and frightful Water of the
sun-rising, and the generative Ether poured around may listen to me. For I
will to-day look with immortal eyes, I who was begotten a mortal from a
mortal womb, exalted by a mighty working power and incorruptible right
hand, I may look with an immortal spirit upon the immortal Eon and the
Lord of the fiery crowns, purified by holy consecrations, since a little
under me stands the human power of mind, which I shall regain after the
present bitter, oppressive, and debt-laden need, I, N. N. the son of N.
N., according to God's unchangeable decree, for it is not within my power,
born mortal, to mount up with the golden light flashes of the immortal
illuminator. Stand still, corruptible human nature, and leave me free
after the pitiless and crushing necessity.
§ 36. The Religious Policy of the Emperors from Heliogabalus to Philip the
With the brief exception of the reign of Maximinus Thrax (235-238),
Christians enjoyed peace from the death of Caracalla to the death of
Philip the Arabian. This was not due to disregard of the laws against
Christians nor to indifference to suspected dangers to the Empire arising
from the new religion, but to the policy of religious syncretism which had
come in with the family of Severus. The wife of Septimius Severus was the
daughter of Julius Bassianus, priest of the Sun-god of Emesa, and of the
rulers of the dynasty of Severus one, Heliogabalus, was himself a priest
of the same syncretistic cult, and another, Alexander, was under the
influence of the women of the same priestly family.
(a) Lampridius, Vita Heliogabali, 3, 6, 7. Preuschen, Analecta, I, §
Lampridius is one of the Scriptores Historiae Augustae, by whom is
a series of lives of the Roman emperors. The series dates from the
fourth century, and is of importance as containing much
information which is not otherwise accessible. The dates of the
various lives are difficult to determine. Avitus Bassianus, known
as Heliogabalus, a name he assumed, reigned 218-222.
Ch. 3. But when he had once entered the city, he enrolled Heliogabalus
among the gods and built a temple to him on the Palatine Hill next the
imperial palace, desiring to transfer to that temple the image of Cybele,
the fire of Vesta, the Palladium, the sacred shields, and all things
venerated by the Romans; and he did this so that no other god than
Heliogabalus should be worshipped at Rome. He said, besides, that the
religions of the Jews and the Samaritans and the Christian worship should
be brought thither, that the priesthood of Heliogabalus should possess the
secrets of all religions.
Ch. 6. Not only did he wish to extinguish the Roman religions, but he was
eager for one thing throughout the entire world--that Heliogabalus should
everywhere be worshipped as god.
Ch. 7. He asserted, in fact, that all the gods were servants of his god,
since some he called his chamber-servants, others slaves, and others
servants in various capacities.
(b) Lampridius, Vita Alexandri Severi, 29, 43, 49. Preuschen,
Analecta, I, § 13.
Alexander Severus (222-235) succeeded his cousin Heliogabalus. The
mother of Alexander, Julia Mammaea, sister of Julia Soaemias, mother
of Heliogabalus, was a granddaughter of Julius Bassianus, whose
daughter, Julia Domna, had married Septimius Severus. It was
through marriages with the female descendants of Julius, who was
priest of the Sun-god at Emesa, that the members of the dynasty of
Severus were connected and their attitude toward religion
determined. It was in the reign of Alexander that syncretism
favorable to Christianity was at its height.
Ch. 29. This was his manner of life: as soon as there was opportunity--that
is, if he had not spent the night with his wife--he performed his devotions
in the early morning hours in his lararium, in which he had statues of the
divine princes and also a select number of the best men and the more holy
spirits, among whom he had Apollonius of Tyana, and as a writer of his
times says, Christ, Abraham, and Orpheus, and others similar, as well as
statues of his ancestors.
Ch. 43. He wished to erect a temple to Christ and to number Him among the
gods. Hadrian, also, is said to have thought of doing this, and commanded
temples without any images to be erected in all cities, and therefore
these temples, because they have no image of the Divinity, are to-day
called Hadriani, which he is said to have prepared for this end. But
Alexander was prevented from doing this by those who, consulting the
auspices, learned that if ever this were done all would be Christians, and
the other temples would have to be deserted.
Ch. 49. When the Christians took possession of a piece of land which
belonged to the public domain and in opposition to them the guild of cooks
claimed that it belonged to them, he decreed that it was better that in
that place God should be worshipped in some fashion rather than that it be
given to the cooks.
(c) Eusebius, Hist. Ec., VI, 21. (MSG, 20:574.)
The mother of the Emperor, whose name was Julia Mammaea, was a most pious
woman, if ever one was. When the fame of Origen had extended everywhere
and had come even to her ears, she desired greatly to see the man, and to
make trial of his understanding of divine things, which was admired by
all. When she was staying for a time in Antioch, she sent for him with a
military escort. Having remained with her for a while and shown her many
things which were for the glory of the Lord and of the excellency of
divine teaching, he hastened back to his accustomed labors.
(d) Firmilianus, Ep. ad Cyprianum, in Cyprian, Ep. 75. (MSL,
3:1211.) Preuschen, Analecta, I, § 14:2.
The following epistle is found among the Epistles of Cyprian, to
whom it is addressed. It is of importance in connection with the
persecution of Maximinus, throwing light on the occasion and
extent of the persecution and relating instances of strange
fanaticism and exorcism.
But I wish to tell you about an affair connected with this very matter
[baptism by heretics, the main subject of the epistle, v. infra, § 52]
which occurred among us. About twenty years ago, in the time after Emperor
Alexander, there happened in these parts many struggles and difficulties,
either in common to all men or privately to Christians. There were,
furthermore, many and frequent earthquakes, so that many cities throughout
Cappadocia and Pontus were thrown down; and some even were dragged down
into the abyss and swallowed by the gaping earth. From this, also, there
arose a severe persecution against the Christian name. This arose suddenly
after the long peace of the previous age. Because of the unexpected and
unaccustomed evil, it was rendered more terrible for the disturbance of
Serenianus was at that time governor of our province, a bitter and cruel
persecutor. But when the faithful had been thus disturbed and were fleeing
hither and thither from fear of persecution and were leaving their native
country and crossing over to other regions--for there was opportunity of
crossing over, because this persecution was not over the whole world, but
was local--there suddenly arose among us a certain woman who in a state of
ecstasy announced herself as a prophetess and acted as if filled with the
Holy Ghost. And she was so moved by the power of the chief demons that for
a long time she disturbed the brethren and deceived them; for she
accomplished certain wonderful and portentous things: thus, she promised
that she would cause the earth to be shaken, not that the power of the
demon was so great that he could shake the earth and disturb the elements,
but that sometimes a wicked spirit, foreseeing and understanding that
there will be an earthquake, pretends that he will do what he foresees
will take place. By these lies and boastings he had so subdued the minds
of several that they obeyed him and followed whithersoever he commanded
and led. He would also make that woman walk in the bitter cold of winter
with bare feet over the frozen snow, and not to be troubled or hurt in any
respect by walking in this fashion. Moreover, she said she was hurrying to
Judea and Jerusalem, pretending that she had come thence. Here, also, she
deceived Rusticus, one of the presbyters, and another one who was a
deacon, so that they had intercourse with the same woman. This was shortly
after detected. For there suddenly appeared before her one of the
exorcists, a man approved and always well versed in matters of religious
discipline; he, moved by the exhortation of many of the brethren, also,
who were themselves strong in the faith, and praiseworthy, raised himself
up against that wicked spirit to overcome it; for the spirit a little
while before, by its subtle deceitfulness, had predicted, furthermore,
that a certain adverse and unbelieving tempter would come. Yet that
exorcist, inspired by God's grace, bravely resisted and showed that he who
before was regarded as holy was a most wicked spirit. But that woman, who
previously, by the wiles and deceits of the demon, was attempting many
things for the deception of the faithful, had among other things by which
she deceived many also frequently dared this--to pretend that with an
invocation, not to be contemned, she sanctified bread and consecrated the
eucharist and offered sacrifice to the Lord without the sacrament as
customarily uttered; and to have baptized many, making use of the usual
and lawful words of interrogation, that nothing might seem to be different
from the ecclesiastical and lawful mode.
(e) Eusebius, Hist. Ec., VI, 34. (MSG, 20:595.) Preuschen, Analecta,
I, § 15, and Kirch, n. 397.
The following tradition that Philip the Arabian was a Christian is
commonly regarded as doubtful. That he favored the Christians, and
even protected them, may be the basis for such a report.
When Gordianus (238-244) had been Roman Emperor for six years, Philip
(244-249) succeeded him. It is reported that he, being a Christian,
desired on the day of the last paschal vigil to share with the multitude
in the prayers of the Church, but was not permitted by him who then
presided to enter until he had made confession and numbered himself among
those who were reckoned as transgressors and who occupied the place of
penitence. For if he had not done this, he would never have been received
by him, on account of the many crimes he had committed, and it is said
that he obeyed readily, manifesting in his conduct a genuine and pious
fear of God.
Next: The Extension Of The Church At T
Previous: State And Church Under Septimius