Brushing up on Roman History
Last December, I received the following email disagreeing vehemently with Michael Bernstein's postulate that multiculturalism will kill universal charity, which was printed in April 2000. It was accidentally swept below during finals period, but I unearthed it today while looking through old emails.
I'd be curious to hear how our readers react to this argument -- whose interpretation of Roman history seems more accurate to you?
"To the editor of THE YALE FREE PRESS,
please forward to your contributor"
"Dear Mr. Bernstein,
As I have noticed your article "The Oldest New Deal" is an expression of opinion, and as such there is nothing to argue with, except that it is a piece of badly informed opinion, or even worse, an insincere speculation on the average reader's ignorance. You depict Rome as it suits you, but not as it was. Julian didn't need to introduce a new welfare system in order to compete with Christian charity, because it was already in place, and where it began to fail to function, it was due to Christian legislation after the coup from 314 AD.
The Christians had been trying to con their way through the institutions for centuries, so Emperor Constantine eventually would call their bluff and put them in charge, with predictable consequences. Suddenly the clerics found themselves faced with the responsibilities of a complex administration, and that was not what they had been asking for. Their social experiment became the recipe for disaster. The new anti-pagan legislation closed down the temples and with it the ancient banking system.
Churches would not step in and administrate bank deposits and service the transfer of large sums of money on bank drafts and "chirographs." They would not lend money on interest. On the contrary the new Christian legislation would initiate a witch-hunt on the small time money lender and eventually out-rule "usury" altogether. This became a key factor for the darkness of the ages to come. Charity is not a substitute for banking and proper financing, as modern charities would be the first to admit.
Only Jews provided a functioning network of financing and nobody seemed to love them for that. It fueled the inherent anti-Semitism of Christian theology to this very day. And when in medieval times the Knight's Templar and the Bardi eventually managed to reestablish functioning financial networks, Thomas of Aquinas advised that "It would be licit to hold Jews in perpetual servitude, and therefore the princes may regard the possessions of Jews as belonging to the State." Christian charity indeed.
Emperor Trajan had introduced institutions and pension schemes for the orphans of his veterans, which was charitable, because soldiers were not supposed to marry and have children. Given the slow communications, the Roman magistrates, even baddies like Emperor Nero, were pretty good at relief actions after earthquakes and large conflagrations. Augustus made it a point that of the substantial capital he had amassed over the period of his rule, ninety percent went back into the community. Philantropy, such as Herod Agippa's, is a Hellenistic tradition, not a Christian innovation.
It suits your little agenda to paint the pagan world as a bleak place of infanticide and without compassion and regard for the plight of the needy, because that makes Christians looking good. So no mention of the orphanages adjoined to the Zeus and Jupiter temples which collected and sheltered the exposed infants and gave Zeus the reputation of an inveterate philanderer. Every kid in those places became a child of god, just not the Christian god, and Hercules was the best loved hero in popular mythology. But infanticide did happen. Surely the situation must have improved when Christianity ruled and closed down the temples?
Surely now there would be a general manumission for all the slaves? Not a peep. The Catholic Church never opposed slavery, not even with one word, for almost two thousand years. All that St. Paul had to say, was advising slaves to please their masters. And as for the infant: well into the 8th century infants still covered in gore were found on the steps of the churches in fully baptized communities. The priest would announce the discovery to the congregation and if no one stepped forward to claim the child he would hand it over to the "inventor" who became the orphan's owner and would raise the child as a slave. How charitable.
Charity is not a Christian innovation and "agape" was not a brand-new term that Paul had to introduce into the Greek dictionary. Greek cult societies and Roman collegia used to practice for a long time what became the base for the Eucharist in the Christian communities before the actual meal turned into a liturgical symbol. In fact the sacrifices at pagan shrines as well as in the Temple in Jerusalem did not just feed the priests, but were meant to feed the charity cases in the community and the already mentioned orphanages, free of charge.
Your final slur on a great president and the welfare state really makes me wonder. An intelligent person as you, should and certainly does know that charity is no substitute for social services. I can't imagine, that even you would really want the mentally ill - of whom some are a danger to themselves and the public - back in the street and outhoused with insufficient supervision on their medication, as we have it here in Britain. That "genie" from the bottle is keeping you safe and comfortable so that you can write more articles of calumny against the welfare state.
With sincere contempt