The eighty-four years from the accession of Nerva to the death of Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 96—A.D. 160) forms a period, as we have seen, in which the pagan civilization and culture of the Graeco-Roman world was at the height of its glory. It was the golden age of literature. The far-flung empire stood under a well-ordained jurisdiction. The seas had been swept free from piracy. Commerce flourished on the Mediterranean Sea. There was protection of life and property. Improved methods of farming had increased the yield of the soil. The great cities were renowned for their swimming pools and magnificent buildings of every kind. Industry prospered. Institutions of learning sowed abroad culture. Books in ancient Rome were plentiful and cheap. Public libraries were in every great city.
But at the core this civilization and culture was rotten. (In this it did not differ from the civilization and culture of our modern world). To quote from a former article, the majority of men were wretchedly poor or they were slaves and as such were treated like beasts of burden. Gladiatorial shows i.e., public games in which men were forced into mortal combat with their fellow-men or with wild beasts for the amusement of the people—the free citizens—-were the order of the day in every city of considerable size. There was perpetual war between the legions of Rome and the fierce barbarian tribes who dwelt on the border of the empire; and the followers of Christ were being thrown to wild beasts or driven into exile. The luxury that resulted from the influx of wealth from the conquered nations was amazingly extravagant. Fortunes were spent on the pleasures of the table. The belly was the god of the rich. With luxury came the vices of sensuality, both natural and unnatural. Avarice, suspicion, jobbery and bribery prevailed on every hand. Natural sympathy and kindness between man and man seems hardly to have existed. Poisonings and assassinations were so common that such atrocities seem hardly to have been regarded as a breach of morality. There were no alms-houses, no hospitals, no societies of benevolence. An immense number of the population was slightly removed from begging. The slaves came from the conquered nations (they were whites, not negroes) and they were so plentiful and cheap that the masters inhumanly wore them out by neglect and hard usage. In the gladiatorial shows, murder was practiced as a sport. The human combatants were condemned criminals or captives of war. Paganism had assumed supreme lordship over human life and dealt with it as it pleased. As to the emperors, all were godless men and not a few of them were monsters of iniquity.
The civilized Graeco-Roman world had become a veritable house of ill-fame. The lack of appreciation of female virtue was general. Poets, philosophers and legislators were agreed that the proper position of the woman is one of oppression and degradation. Aristobulus’ answer to the question of Socrates: “Is there any one with whom you converse less than with your wife?” was, “No one, at least very few.” The cultured of her sex were generally women of ill-repute. “These dissolute women were held in higher esteem than the housewives, and became the proper and only representatives of some sort of female culture and social elegance. Modesty forbids the mention of a still more odious vice, which even depraved nature abhors, which yet was freely discussed and praised by ancient poets and philosophers, practiced with neither punishment nor dishonor and likewise divinely sanctioned by the gods. It was not considered adultery for a husband to hold intercourse with the slaves of his household and with prostitutes. And the women were as corrupt as the husbands. A chaste wife was a rarity in the land. Poor, sickly, and deformed children were exposed to a cruel death, or in many cases to a life of slavery or infamy—a custom approved, for the public interest even by a Plato, an Aristotle, and a Seneca. “Monstrous offspring,” says the great Stoic philosopher, “we destroy children, too, if born feeble and ill-formed we drown. It is not wrath but reason thus to separate the useless from the healthy”.
The above description of the moral state of civilized heathendom of the Graeco-Roman world, agrees with that of the apostle Paul contained in his epistle to the Romans.
In that world was God’s little flock—a people transported out of that world, Satan’s kingdom, into the kingdom of God’s Son, thus a people in the world yet not of it, a people who bore the imperishable treasures of the kingdom of Heaven, in the depths of whose soul was implanted the life which is in Christ and whose conversation therefore was in Heaven. We find in the writings of the early fathers a picture of the life of this little band of Christians. How lovely that life, in contrast to pagan corruption. “We who once served lust,” says Justin Martyr, “now find our delight only in pure morals; we, who once followed sorcery, have now consecrated ourselves to the eternal good God; we, who once loved gain above all, now give up what we have for the common use, and share with every needy one; we, who once hated and killed each other; we, who would have no common hearth with foreigners for difference of customs, now, since the appearance of Christ, live with them, pray for our enemies seek to convince those who hate us without cause, that they may regulate their life according to the glorious teachings of Christ, and receive from the all-ruling God the same blessings with ourselves.”
This picture is not overdrawn. It is fact that God’s people, in that age were exceptionally unworldly, patient in enduring suffering and persecution, and excelled in the hope of Christ’s coming and in all manner of well-doing.
Minutius Felix addresses the heathen thus: “You prohibit adultery by law, and practice it in secret; you punish wickedness only in the overt act; we look upon it as criminal even in thought. You dread the inspection of others; we stand in awe of nothing but our own conscience as becomes Christians. And finally, your prisoners are overflowing with criminals; but they are all heathen, not a Christian is there, unless he be an apostate.”
On the other hand, the error of unduly idealizing the Christian life of the period before Nicea must be avoided. Then, too, the light was being obscured by sins that dwell in the flesh. In periods of “stillness” Christian zeal abated. On re-opening of persecution, many would deny the Savior to save their lives or to escape the loss of their worldly goods.
The Christian church condemned the gladiatorial bloody games as murder. They were included in the “pomp of the devil” and forbidden on pain of excommunication. Tertullian denounced them without reserve. He tells the catechumens that “the condition of faith and the laws of Christian discipline forbid, among the sins of the world, the pleasures of the public shows. They excite all sorts of wild and impure passions, anger, fury and lust; while the spirit of Christianity is the spirit of meekness, peace and purity. What a man should not say, he should not hear. All licentious speech, nay, every idle word is condemned of God. The things which defile a man in going out of his mouth, defile him also when they go in at his eyes and ears. The true wrestlings of the Christian are to overcome unchastity, perfidy by unfaithfulness, cruelty by compassion and charity.” Worldly-minded Christians, then as now, would plead for such amusement by appealing to the silence of the Scriptures, or to the dancing of David before the Ark, and to Paul’s comparison of the Christian life with the Grecian games. Turtulian refuted their arguments.
In general, the Christians of that age were opposed to high office in the pagan state on account of the idolatrous usages, sacrifices, libations and flatteries connected with public offices.
The fathers did not inveigh against slavery. They counseled servants to serve only the more zealously to the glory of the Lord, that they may receive from God the higher freedom. Tertullian deems the outward freedom worthless without the deliverance of the soul from the dominion of sin. Says he: “How can the world make a servant free? All is mere show in the world, nothing truth. For the slave is already free, as a purchase of Christ. If thou takest the freedom which the world can give for true, thou hast thereby again become the servant of man, and hast lost the freedom of Christ, in that thou thinkest it bondage.”
The Christians made chastity the cornerstone of the family. The ancient councils condemn carnal sins in every form. Female martyrs preferred death to loss of honor. But it was the virgin and not so much the faithful wife and mother of children that the father praised and glorified.
Marriage was regarded as the sacred union of body and soul. Chastity was the law of the family life. Clement of Alexandria says: “The mother is the glory of her children, the wife is the glory of her husband, both are the glory of the life, God is the glory of all together.
Christianity placed a check on the pagan tyranny of the father. It taught the value of children as heirs of the kingdom of God.
Love was a bond of union among believers and the mark of true discipleship. “That especially,” says Tertullian to the heathen, “which love works among us, exposes us to many suspicions. ‘Behold’ they say, ‘how they love one another!’ Yes, verily this must strike them, for they hate one another. ‘And how ready are they to die for one another!’ Yea, truly, for they are rather ready to kill one another. And even that we call each other brethren, seems to them suspicious for no other reason, than that, among them, all expressions of kindred are only feigned. We are even your brethren, in virtue of the common nature, which is the mother of us all; though ye, as evil brethren, deny your human nature. But how much more justly are those called and considered brethren, who acknowledge the one God as their Father; who have received the one spirit of holiness; who have awaked from the same darkness of uncertainty to the light of the same truth?”