Ecstasy in Late Imperial Rome

Dirk Bennett describes the crowded religious calendar of pagan Rome, and the spiritual market place in which Christianity had to fight for domination.

The sacred cry strikes to heaven with the praises of the eternal Lord and the pinnacle of the Capitol totters with the shock. The neglected images in the empty temples tremble when struck by the pious voices, and are overthrown by the name of Christ.

Terrified demons abandon their deserted shrines. The envious serpent pale with rage struggles in vain, his lips bloodstained, bemoaning with his hungry throat the redemption of man, and at the same time now, with unavailing groans, the predator writhes around his dry altars cheated of the blood of sacrificial cattle…’ (Paulinus of Nola)


This is Rome in the fourth century after Christ. The Church Fathers unanimously drew a picture of an overwhelming triumph of their creed. According to them, with the conversion of Constantine in AD 312 the old and tired heathen religions gave way to a youthful new belief. Victories of Roman emperors were now interpreted as victories of God; the history of mankind equalled the history of His church. They argued that the old gods could not prevent the defeats, plagues and misfortunes of the past and present, and only since the arrival of Jesus Christ had the Empire achieved its vocation: to spread the true faith all over the world.


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