Author: Ben Bassett

Progress and Polytheism: Could an Ethical West Exist Without Christianity?

Imagine a Europe that resembles India. In Germany, France and England, in place of Romanesque or Gothic cathedrals stand temples devoted to a kaleidoscopic pantheon of local and state-sanctioned gods. In Italy, in place of the Renaissance duomo in the town piazza, one finds something resembling a still-complete temple to the Capitoline Triad that tourists might today visit in the ruins of Pompeii. Imagine Rome’s Pantheon devoted not to Christ, but, as the name implies, to all the gods. Imagine, in short, a Europe without Christianity. India is a provocative analogue for this alternate history because its temples remain open and enthusiastically attended; its ancient religions, though much evolved, are still practiced; there is a continuity, however vivisected, between the present and the deep past. By comparison, Europe’s Christian character represents a historical schism, between new and old, of unfathomable proportion: The ancient pre-Christian world of the west, though spectacular in its achievements, is a cultural enigma to us. In our collective understanding of western history, Christianity stands out as a kind of sui generis …

Yes, the Romans Were Diverse—but Not in the Way We Understand It

“Neither sea nor intervening continent are bars to citizenship, nor are Asia and Europe divided in their treatment here. In your empire all paths are open to all.” – Aelius Aristides, ‘Roman Oration’. trans. Oliver. The above words, so apparently congenial to the ‘open border’ mentality of the modern Western mind, were in fact written in the third century AD by a Greek orator who was also a Roman citizen. In the speech from which this extract was taken, thought to have been given in Rome in AD 143 or 144 during the reign of emperor Antoninus Pius, the Greek Aristides illustrates a remarkably beneficent portrait of Roman power, the same power which had after all made his home the subject, ultimately, of a non-democratic Roman governor. The speech is a paradox to modern temperaments. Far from extolling the spread of an altruistic globalisation, Aristides extols the virtues, as he sees them, of a violent imperial power which had not only ingested his homeland but in doing so had implicitly repudiated traditional Greek notions of …