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Archive for the ‘200s’ Category

200s

The 200s (200-299), the third century after Christ, was a troubled time in the Roman Empire. Emperor after emperor was overthrown by the army or murdered. Cities began to build walls round themselves. Even Rome itself built a wall for the first time since the empire began.

In 268 the empire began to break up but Claudius II was able to hold the empire together and Aurelian to take back the parts that had broken away, like Palmyra in the east under queen Zenobia. But Dacia (now called Romania) and Armenia were lost for good.

In these troubled time three religions from the east spread across the empire:

  • Mithraism had many followers in the army, but it did not allow women to join, and so many children were brought up in Christianity, not Mithraism. Their “Day of the Sun” holiday on December 25th later became the date for Christmas.
  • Manichaeism was founded in the 200s by the prophet Mani from Babylon. He said the world is a battlefield between a good god and an evil god.
  • Christianity had a large following among the poor in the cities. The government killed thousands of Chrisians and burned down their churches: they would not bend their knee to the emperor and say he was a god. Those who died for their faith became martyrs – heroes of the faith – and only made faith stronger. The Christians also took much better care of their sick during plagues, which helped their numbers to grow.

Gnosticism was at its height in these years, especially among the rich. It said that Christ did not die for our sins, but told us a secret way to heaven.

Alexandria of the 200s produced two great thinkers: Origen and the Greek philosopher Plotinus. They pointed men along two different roads to the truth: Christianity and Neoplatonism.

Alexandria also produced the last great figure in Greek mathematics: Diophantus, who wrote the first book on algebra.

The Library of Alexandria was burned down in 270 and the Olympic games died out by 300.

From the north Rome fought the Germans, especially the Goths, who took Dacia and crossed the Danube river. Rome took back Dacia, but later gave it up as being too hard to defend.

Parthia became Persia once more under the Persian Sassanian kings. It was the beginning of a golden age for Persia. In the 200s it took Armenia from Rome and even marched its armies through Asia Minor.

In India nothing of note took place.

China broke up into the Three Kingdoms. This ended more than 400 years of Han rule. This period is well known to people in East Asia through the book written by Luo Guanzhong in the 1300s called the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, which is based on stories and histories from that time.

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Roman Empire

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The Roman Empire, circa +197.

The Roman Empire (-27 to +476) was the circle of lands round the Mediterranean Sea ruled by Rome. Its ideas about law, government, religion, language and writing became those of the West.

Before -27 Rome was called a republic because the Senate still had some power. But Rome had ruled lands outside of Italy since at least -220. Did it matter to those in Greece or Carthage whether they were ruled by one Roman (the emperor) or many (the Senate)?

And even after Rome fell in 476, the empire in the east continued, ruled from Constantinople, which did not fall to the Turks till 1453. We call it the Byzantine empire, but that is a name made up by French scholars in the 1800s. The empire called itself Roman. Even the Arabs and Turks called them Rumi.

In 117, Rome at its height ruled the lands from Scotland to Egypt, from Morocco to Mesopotamia. It was bound by the Rhine and Danube rivers in the north (except for Dacia, now Romania), the Atlantic Ocean in the west, the Sahara in the south and Persia in the east.

Rome brought peace to all the lands round the Mediterranean Sea for hundreds of years: the Pax Romana or Roman peace.

Rome took the best ideas of Egypt, Babylon and Greece and added ideas of its own about law and government.

Latin was the main language in the west, Greek in the east.

Some of the early emperors were cruel and sick men, like Caligula, Claudius and Nero. They ruled from 37 to 68. Later it was ruled by five good emperors, from 96 to 180: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius. They brought Rome to the height of its power and glory in the 100s.

In the 200s war was common: the empire had no peaceful, orderly way to hand power from one emperor to the next.

By the 200s the Christians were seen as a threat to the social order: they did not believe the emperor was a god. They would not even give the idea lip service. But by the 300s most people were Christians. They now became the social order, closing down the old temples and burning old books.

By the 300s the emperor rarely came to Rome. He spent most of his time in Milan and the new city of Constantinople, founded by Constantine. Sometimes the empire was ruled by two emperors, one in the west and one in the east. The last emperor to rule both halves together was Theodosius I from 379 to 395.

In the 400s the army in the west was mainly German defending the empire against other Germans! No surprise, then, when the west soon found itself cut up like a birthday cake among German generals, some of them from the Roman army itself. One of those generals, Odoacer, overthrew the last emperor in the west in 476.

In the 500s Justinian sent Belasarius to take back the west. He took much of Italy – by destroying its cities – but in time even Italy was lost.

– Abagond, 2007, 2016.

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The Roman Republic / Empire from -510 to +530.

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Origen (185-254) was a Christian intellectual from Alexandria. He influenced Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, Bernard and others. His allegorical interpretation of scripture, though out of favour now, deeply influenced the West in the years from 600 to 1200.

Alexandria of the 200s produced two great thinkers: Origen and the Greek philosopher Plotinus. They produced the two great roads to the truth that men of the Roman Empire followed in the 200s and 300s. Augustine followed both roads in the early 400s and showed how they were the same road.

Origen had a good Greek education. He tried to make Christian and Greek thinking into one system but failed. His mistake was to treat Greek thinking as a set of truths, not as a way of thinking.

It was partly in “De principiis” that Origen tried to make the two systems into one:

  • Eternity of creation: it is without beginning or end. God can create and destroy, but he cannot exist without a creation.
  • Free will: God made angels, stars, demons and men all equal to each other. They became unequal through what they did with their free will.
  • Matter: All spiritual beings have a material nature, even angels. But some, like men, are more material than others.
  • Universal salvation: If you are not saved in this life, your soul will be brought back for another chance. Because the universe lasts for ever even the demons will be saved.

Origen was not a heretic – all this was within the limits of Christian thinking in the Alexandria of his day. But the book got a bad name when heretics later used it to justify teachings that opposed the Church.

The emperor Justinian pushed to have Origen condemned. He had political reasons of his own, but “De principiis” made it easy for the Church to do it. That is why he is not considered to be a saint.

He fell out of favour in the Greek east in the 600s but the Latin west continued to read him. Not “De principiis”, but his books about the Bible. Of the few books that existed then in the West many were by Origen. They stood like a lighthouse to the Bible.

Origen said the entire Bible is true, but not necessarily our interpretation of it. Some passages just have a straight sense, some only have an allegorical sense, where the Bible speaks in figures, and some passages have both senses.

For example, the wood of Noah’s ark stands for the wood of the Cross of Christ. The lamb’s blood the Jews put on their door frames on the night of the first Passover foreshadows the saving blood of Christ. These were real events in history but God used them as figures of what was to come.

Origen’s New Testament included:

  • Acts of Paul
  • 1 Clement
  • Barnabas
  • Didache
  • Shepherd of Hermas

but not:

  • James
  • 2 Peter
  • 2 John
  • 3 John

The books of the New Testament were still not fixed till the 300s.

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The Library of Alexandria (-295 to +646) was the largest library of ancient times. It stood for almost a thousand years. In 2002 a new Library of Alexandria was opened.

The ancient library had about 490,000 scrolls. That comes to about 100,000 of our books or, on a computer, 64 gigabytes. For us that would be a small-city library. In its time only the Library of Pergamum (the library that invented parchment) came close. In our time, the Library of Congress, now the largest, did not pass that size till the late 1800s.

The Library was conceived as a universal library: to have a copy of every book ever written. At 490,000 scrolls it probably came close that for Greek books.

It was not a free-standing, public library. It was part of the Museum of Alexandria, which in turn was part of the king’s estate. It was not a museum as we think of it but something like a research institute, which brought together some of the greatest minds of the age. It had labs, an observatory, a botanical garden and a zoo with a polar bear.

The Museum and Library gave us, among other things:

  • putting things in alphabetical order,
  • dividing a work into “books” (= separate scrolls),
  • the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament),
  • the works of Homer as we know them,
  • grammar books in the form we are used to seeing them,
  • punctuation,
  • the first good measurement of how big the earth is,
  • latitude and longitude,
  • heliocentrism.

The Library had a branch in the temple of Serapis. It was about a tenth the size but seems to have been opened to the public.

Ships that came to Alexandria were searched for books. Those that were found were copied: the owner got the copy, the Library kept the original! The Library sent buyers abroad to find the oldest copies of books. The older the better. If it had several old copies of the same book, it would work out what the original must have been. That is how the Library came to have the most trustworthy copies in the world.

It had the stolen originals of the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides and books from the libraries of Aristotle and Theophrastus..

Languages: it had books in at least Greek, Egyptian, Aramaic (Babylonian) and Hebrew..

The Library was (partly) destroyed in:

  • -48 under Julius Caesar, who may have taken some of its books to Rome;
  • 272 under Aurelian to put down an uprising in Alexandria;
  • 295 under Diocletian to put down yet another uprising;
  • 391 under Theodosius when the Serapis branch was destroyed as a temple to idols;
  • 646 when Arabs destroyed what remained.

Of its books, 99% are lost forever. But if it were not for the Library, we would not have much of what do have, through copying and recopying, like the works of Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Thucydides and Herodotus.

Of the physical remains of the actual books that once sat in the Library, all we have are some torn pages.

– Abagond, 2006, 2015.

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Written: 250
Read: 1994

In his six Enneads Plotinus explains life, the universe and everything.

If you want to question everything you ever believed read this book.

If you want to understand God or religion better, whether you are a believer or not, read this book. Plotinus himself was not a follower of Christ or Muhammad, but of Plato. Yet because he influenced Christian and Muslim thinkers, like Augustine, reading Plotinus helps you to understand those faiths better.

The West today is building a world view based on materialism, but this book made me see that it could just as well be done the other way around: it could be based on idealism, where Plato’s Ideas, not the material world, is the base reality. Plotinus shows how in his six Enneads.

Whether you go for his idealism or not, Plotinus is great because he takes apart and questions ideas like matter, knowledge, being and God. What he writes about matter and God is very good, even if you do not agree with him. He does go soft-headed sometimes, but he really does want to understand the nature of things and not settle for the easy answers we all heard in school. Where most are content to leave God as a name on a brass doorplate – “Creator of the Universe” – Plotinus really really wants to understand God. In detail. In depth. It is wonderful.

You know, most philosophers, like your father, will answer your question with a bit of arch wording and then have that smile on their face. Plotinus is not like that. It is wonderful!

Be aware that because he thinks so differently from the way we do, sometimes you have to read a passage several times before you get it. But in the end you will be happy you did not give up.

Some of what he says:

Plotinus said that the highest reality was the Idea of One which, it turns out, is the same as the Idea of Good. Christians and Muslims will recognise this as God.

The universe is a side effect of the emanations of the Good. It is not an act of will of the Good but just a natural side effect. The universe emanates from the Good like light shines from the sun. The sun is not about making light for us, but it is a side effect of its nature. So with the universe and the Good.

At each stage the emanations get weaker so that the farther away you get from the Good, the less perfect creation becomes. The Good emanates the ideas, which in leads to spirit which in turn leads to matter. In this way Plotinus is able to explain how something so perfect as the Good can create an imperfect world.

And what about us? We are part spirit but also part matter. But there is hope: Plotinus says that through self-control, philosophy (of course), contemplation and mysticism we can return step by step to the One. Very Gnostic, that. As a philosopher Plotinus loved reason, but he placed mysticism above reason as a shortcut to knowing the One.

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Plotinus (205-270) was the last great philosopher in the West who believed in the old gods. He founded a new school of philosophy, which we call Neoplatonism. He wrote about his philosophy in his six Enneads. Even though his school of thought only lasted for 300 years and he is barely heard of today, his influence has been great because of the Christian and Muslim thinkers who read him, like Augustine.

Some of what Plotinus believed:

  • The universe is eternal – without beginning, without end.
  • Reincarnation: the soul is eternal and goes from body to body.
  • Many gods exists, but there is also one God Almighty.
  • Stars are alive and have minds.
  • The purpose of life is virtue to free the soul from the body.
  • Providence: the gods act for our benefit.
  • Idealism: our world is an imperfect picture of the perfect world of Ideas.
  • Astrology: the stars influence our fate.

He was born in Egypt and went to Alexandria to learn philosophy. In 242 he went with the Roman army to Persia, where he learned about Persian and Indian thought. Two years later he came to Rome where he founded his school. It was not just a place of thought and argument: his disciples gave up their wealth and dedicated themselves to contemplation. This was a century before Christians did the same.

In 250, having developed his philosophy of Neoplatonism, he wrote about it in the six Enneads. He explains the world based not on materialism, as we do, but idealism, where Plato’s Ideas were the base reality And among those ideas the starting point of everything is the One, which is the same thing as the Good. Christians and Muslims will recognize this as God.

Plotinus saw creation as an emanation from the Good, like light shining from the sun. The farther something was from the Good, the less spiritual and the more material it became. This allowed him to account for the ruined beauty of the universe without recourse to the dualism of the Gnostics or the Fall and original sin of the Catholics.

Plotinus was not a Christian, but some of his disciples were Gnostics, so he was familiar with their errors:

  • As the “sons of God”, Christians thought they were better than gods and stars. This made them seek pleasure instead of virtue and think only of themselves.
  • Dualism: They hated the body and the world, seeing the world as dark and unjust. Clearly they did not understand Plato!
  • They saw illness as a spiritual affair that could be cured by the right words.
  • They believed they could influence God by words and songs.

Plotinus had to spend time showing his Christian disciples how badly they misunderstood Plato. In the process both Gnosticism and Neoplatonism influenced one another.

– Abagond, 2006.

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Gnosticism

Gnosticism was the most common form of the Christian faith among the rich in the first three centuries after Christ.

Gnosticism says that Jesus saves us not by his death on the Cross, as most Christians now believe, but by the secret knowledge – the gnosis – that he told certain disciples, such as Thomas or Judas or Mary Magdalene. The death on the Cross thing comes from Peter and Paul. It was widely believed among the poor, but what did they know?

So there were Gnostic gospels: a Gospel of Thomas, of Judas and so on. As you will soon see, they did not make it into Holy Scripture.

In Gnosticism the Demiurge, the god of the Jews, is not God Himself and is not even a good god. He created this evil world of matter which has become our prison. Our souls are not from this world but from a high heaven. Jesus was sent by the real God to show us the way back. That is the secret knowledge or gnosis that he has come to tell us. It is not a place we can get to now, but only after death. But to make it back, we need to know the way now.

When the Greek philosopher Plotinus speaks about the Christian faith, he is thinking of Gnosticism, not the sort we know. There was an exchange of both people and ideas back and forth between Gnosticism and his school of Neoplatonism.

Gnosticism was not one church, like the Catholic Church, but a family of sects. Many were small – just a teacher and his followers. Some grew into real churches complete with martyrs, lasting centuries, such as the Marcionites.

Gnosticism reached its high point in the early 200s. A century later, however, the Catholic Church saw the Arians as a greater threat than the Gnostics. Still, what Gnostic sects remained were either crushed by persecution or became part of Manichaeism.

Why did the Catholic Church win and not the Gnostics? Some say it was divine providence. Others point out that the Catholic Church had a unity the free-wheeling Gnostics could never match and, later, the backing of the Roman Empire. To be fair, by the time the Catholics had the power of the state Gnosticism was already close to dead.

But perhaps it is much simpler than all that: the Pauline gospels are, at least to me, much more believable than the Gnostic ones. And I doubt I am alone in that.

Because the Catholic Church won its gospels became part of Holy Scripture, not the Gnostic ones. But the Church said that the Gnostic gospels were not merely wrong, they were made up!

For centuries the Gnostic gospels were lost, but in the late 1900s they came to light again from finds in Egypt. The largest of these finds was the Nag Hammadi Library.

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