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From Hutton Webster's, Early European History (1917); edited for this on-line publication, by ELLOPOS
VII. THE LATER EMPIRE: CHRISTIANITY IN THE ROMAN WORLD, 180-395 A.D.
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THE PREPARATION FOR CHRISTIANITY
DECLINE OF PAGANISM
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.
Cf. The Ancient Greece * The Ancient Rome
Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) * Western Medieval Europe * Renaissance in Italy