Several centuries before the rise of Christianity many
Greek thinkers began to feel a growing dissatisfaction with the crude faith
that had come down to them from prehistoric times. They found it more and more
difficult to believe in the Olympian deities, who were fashioned like
themselves and had all the faults of mortal men. An adulterous Zeus, a
bloodthirsty Ares, and a scolding Hera, as Homer represents them, were hardly
divinities that a cultured Greek could love and worship. For educated Romans,
also, the rites and ceremonies of the ancient religion came gradually to lose
their meaning. The worship of the Roman gods had never appealed to the
emotions. Now it tended to pass into the mere mechanical repetition of prayers
and sacrifices. Even the worship of the Caesars, which did much to hold
the empire together, failed to satisfy the spiritual wants of mankind. It made
no appeal to the moral nature; it brought no message, either of fear or hope,
about a future world and a life beyond the grave.
During these centuries a system of Greek philosophy,
called Stoicism, gained many adherents among the Romans. Any one who will read
the Stoic writings, such as those of the noble emperor, Marcus Aurelius,
will see how nearly Christian was the Stoic faith. It urged men to forgive
injuries—to "bear and forbear." It preached the brotherhood of man.
It expressed a humble and unfaltering reliance on a divine Providence. To many
persons of refinement Stoicism became a real religion. But since Stoic
philosophy could reach and influence only the educated classes, it could not become
a religion for all sorts and conditions of men.