The divine-human relationship: ancient pagan and Christian views

Peter Leithart summarizes Pau Veyne’s contrast in When Our World Became Christian:

“Augustus, following his victory over Antony and Cleopatra at Actium, had, as we know, settled his debt to Apollo by consecrating a sanctuary and a local cult to the god. The Christogram that appeared on the shields of Constantine’s army indicated that victory had been won thanks to the god of the Christians.  However, what was not understood was that the relationship between this god and his creatures was a permanent, passionate and mutual one, whereas the relationship between the human race and the race of pagan gods, who were primarily concerned about themselves was, so to speak, international, contracted and spasmodic.  Apollo had not instigated his relationship with Augustus and had never instructed the latter to sweep to victory under his divine sign.”

In short, “a pagan was content with his gods if he had elicited their help by means of his prayers and vows; a Christian instead endeavoured to make his God content with him.  Augustus did not serve Apollo; he simply turned to him for help.” By contrast, “Constantine repeatedly declared that he was simply the servant of Christ, who had admitted him to his service and would always procure him victory.”

As evidence of the “contracted and spasmodic” relationships between pagan gods and their followers, Veyne gives two examples: “at the death of a much loved prince, Germanicus, the Roman plebs stoned the temples and toppled their altars, just as today’s demonstrators might attack a foreign embassy; in Late Antiquity, Emperor Julian, a man who harked back to the past, indignant at having suffered a military defeat, refused to sacrifice to Mars ever again.”


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