Ancient civilization—like ours, only different
Getting started

Rome, 200 AD



You won't understand the beginnings of Christianity until you understand the ideas that formed the culture that formed the religion.

What's wrong with this picture?
Atlas holding the Earth on his shoulder—it's an image sunk deep in western culture. But did the Greeks who cooked up the myth really think the Earth was a big ball Atlas had to tote around? And what exactly was Atlas standing on? The answer is, Atlas didn't hold the Earth. Atlas stood on the Earth and held up the "firmament" —the solid dome of the sky.

We've reinterpreted their myth to fit our own ideas. And we got it wrong. We got it wrong because the way we understand the universe is way far different from how the ancients understood it, and we didn't take the time to figure out how they saw things.

Christianity is an ancient religion. It comes from a culture that thought the sky was a solid dome that needed holding up. You won't ever understand the beginnings of Christianity until you understand the ideas that formed the culture that formed the religion. If the history of Christianity interests you, you'll have to get over just lining up a few of their facts with your modern ideas. You'll have to learn how the ancients saw the universe before you can see how their myths and legends and religions fit in with their ideas about how the world worked.


The Ancients were like us...
For much of recorded history Europeans were a primitive bunch. For roughly a thousand years they passed through a dark age living in tribal villages, assisted by no real government, exploited by gangster lords, ignorant of the world beyond a day's walk of their dirt floored shacks. With no written language of their own they were illiterate, superstitious, afraid of witches, magic spells, and a thousand forest spirits. Life was brutal, ugly, short.

It wasn't always so.

Earlier, between about 1,000 BC (much earlier in Mesopotamia and Egypt) and when the Middle Ages began, sometime around 500 AD., tribal villages in Mediterranean Europe grew into city states, city states into nations, and nations into vast civilizing empires.

Enduring civic institutions brought stability and prosperity to millions. Prosperity brought cosmopolitan cities, roads, travel, commerce, suburbs, learning, literature, drama, representative art, engineering, architecture, mathematics, philosophy. And sophisticated religion.

We call this first great historical western flowering "Ancient Civilization." Rome, Greece, the pyramids, Jesus, that stuff. Ancient civilization endured over 1,500 years. We call the people who lived then and there the "Ancients."

There were Ancient Chinese too. We're not talking about them.


A misconception: ancient history is all snooty fingernail on the blackboard poetry, and emperors.
If your ancient history comes from school, chances are you have in mind Homer's Iliad, Shakespeare's Caesar, and tables of emperors—dull, distant stuff you maybe try to like because appreciating this crap is one of the things that makes fancy people fancy.

Look, life's too short to worry if you're fancy. Ignore the snooty books, and pick up the fun things written by the ancients—Herodotus, Lucian, travelogues, novels, biographies, personal letters, diaries, inscriptions. Do that and you'll discover an explosion of life and vitality. You will see and hear and touch and smell, across a hundred generations, real people busy enjoying real lives.

Absolutely fucking amazing. Enough said.


Written on a wall in Herculaneum: "Two companions were here and, since they had a thoroughly terrible attendant called Peaphroditus, threw him out onto the street not a moment too soon. They then spent 105 1/2 sesterces most agreeably while they fucked."

1st century AD. Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum 4.10676, which you can find in: G. Fagan, Bathing in the Roman World, pg 324.
Don't believe me, believe the ancients themselves.

Another misconception: the ancients were primitive simpletons.
Truth is they were people, just like the people you know: some smart, some dumb, most in between. Like us. And they weren't primitive. It's true they didn't have choo-choo trains and digital watches, but they did have indoor plumbing, high rise apartments, central heating, pop-top bottles and bikinis. They also had—I've just said this—literature, drama, art, engineering, architecture, mathematics, and philosophy.


And the incredible thing is, think about this: they invented it all! Starting as savages two spits from the stone age, the ancients developed literature, mathematics, government and architecture—after they invented writing, numbers, law and mortar.

Primitive? No. Incredible? Incredibly!


...only different.
The ancients were people just like us—but their ideas were shaped by a culture that was incomprehensibly different from ours.

Wall painting from the Centenary House in Pompeii

Here's an example that always floors me. This famous painting is from the Centenary House in Roman Pompeii—79 AD. The people who owned the house had this painting on the wall of one of their rooms. Notice that the woman is wearing a brassiere. That was the Roman custom—only lascivious women showed their breasts during sex.

So, Romans could have a painting on their wall of people having sex—but the painting would be of a woman who covers her breasts out of modesty.



For women followers of the Goddess Cybele, having sex with a stranger was a holy sacrament. Go figure.  

What's more, the Romans would go to the mixed- sex public baths completely naked.

And, for women followers of the Goddess Cybele, having sex with a stranger at the temple was a religious act—a holy duty!

And, get this, you read in the ancient texts about a man, a follower of Dionysus, dedicating a sacred penis to his mother-in-law! Go figure.


By the way


This business of ancient culture being incomprehensibly different from ours comes up a lot. When it does, I call it A sacred penis for your mother-in-law moment.

At POCM you'll find ASPFYMIL moments marked with this picture >>

But you should also understand that not only was ancient culture different from ours, the way it was different was different from what your modern ideas make you think. For example, you're maybe thinking all this sex stuff I just listed was that way because the ancients were wild uninhibited filthy minded dirty people. They weren't. In marriage the wife's fidelity was not just a virtue, it was the expectation. Many Roman baths separated men from women. Non-believers everwhere found the Cybele sex business repulsive. And in general the "sex" stuff on the list wasn't about sex, it was about the sacred miracle of new life. Here's how we know...


Boner-Gods ("ithy-phallic" Gods, if you're supping with the Queen. Or maybe just chat about the weather. Also, remember not to pick your nose.)

The ancients didn't make statues of boner-Gods to worship sex. Then as now, people didn't need statues for that.

The ancients made statues of boner-Gods as a way of worshiping the sacred miracle of new life.

Diodorus of Sicily explains   >>


They [the Egyptians] have deified the goat, just as the Greeks are said to have honored Priapus, because of the generative member; for this animal has a very great propensity for copulation, and it is fitting that honor be shown to that member of the body which is the cause of generation, being, as it were, the primal author of all animal life. And, in general, not only the Egyptians but not a few other peoples as well have in the rites they observe treated the male member as sacred, on the ground that it is the cause of the generation of all creatures; and the priests in Egypt who have inherited their priestly offices from their fathers are initiated first into the mysteries of this god. And both the Pans and the Satyrs, they say, are worshipped by men for the same reason; and this is why most peoples set up in their sacred places statues of them showing the phallus erect and resembling a goat's in nature, since according to tradition this animal is most efficient in copulation; consequently, by representing these creatures in such fashion, the dedicants are returning thanks to them for their own numerous offspring.

  [Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History, 1.88 (1st century BC),—which you can find in: Oldfather, C. H. Diodorus of Sicily, The Library of History, Books I - ii.34 (Loeb Classical Library #279) (1933 /1998), pg. 299]
Don't believe me, believe the ancients themselves.

Are you with me so far? We keep getting ancient ideas wrong.

First there was the story of Atlas holding something on his shoulder. We got that wrong, because we tried to fit the ancient story in with modern planetary astronomy. Only, see, the ancients didn't have our planetary astronomy. Turns out, to understand the ancient Atlas story you've got to fit the story in to the ancients' understanding of the shape of the universe, the solid dome of the sky and what not. Otherwise you get it wrong.

Then there was all that sex action. We got that wrong too. We tried to fit their holy rites into our humping and cumming view of sex. The ancients understood sex as humping, sure, but unlike us their religion revered sex's connection with the miracle of creation. Turns out to understand the ancients' sacred penis of Dionysus you have to fit the ritual in with the ancients' reverence for the splendiferous miracle of new life. And we didn't do that. So we got it wrong. For us sex is just humping. Now who's got the dirty filthy mind?

Ok fine. The Atlas thing is interesting-ish, and the sex stuff is weird, but so what? Here's so what. Differences matter. And here comes the big difference between us and the ancients —between our ideas and their ideas—that you absolutely must know if you hope to understand earliest Christianity.


Cause and effect
You and I know things happen on account of the laws of nature. Things move, the sun crosses the sky, in accordance with the laws of physics. Fire burns because of the laws of chemistry. Dice land according to the laws of probability. Even if we're not sure exactly what the laws of nature are, we are sure there are laws of nature, and that the things that happen are caused by them. In our world every effect—every thing that happens—has a mechanical, impersonal cause.

The ancients' world didn't work like that. It couldn't work like that, what with them not having the maths or the measurements that lead people to discover laws of nature and all. What they did have, like us, was the instinct to link cause with effect, and effect with cause. Something moved? Then something must have moved it. Something, or someone.

And now we've hit the big difference between between their view of how the world works and ours. Not having impersonal mechanical laws of nature to explain cause and effect, the ancients invented invisible, intelligent personalities to cause the sun to move, a fire to burn, and dice to roll as they did. They invented the Gods. In fact they invented a medley of god-beings: great Gods, demi-Gods, God's messengers, demons, spirits, sprites, souls, ghosts of the dead, and vague and ill defined purposeful personalities, all causing the events people saw in day to day life.

As we go through POCM, I'll show you not just that Christianity and Paganism share ideas, I'll show you how their shared ideas—miracles, prophesies, demons, virgin births, angels, magic dreams, even God and heaven— all fit the ancients' primitive god-being centered understanding of how the world worked.

Fuckin' a.