A seminal epoch explored in terms of statecraft and religion, sociology and belief.
The first century B.C. was largely dominated by imperial Rome and its regional client kings. Octavian defeated Marc Antony and Cleopatra and became Augustus, master and overlord of the Roman world. In its German campaign, Rome suffered disastrous defeat. It was a time when conquest by trade was preferable to war, when mystery cults held sway, and pagan gods could be human enough to do business with mortal men. Charity was an unknown notion to the Romans, but clearly, religion held empires together. In Alexandria, still under Hellenic influence, compassionate Isis was the divinity of choice. The Arabian exporters of frankincense and unguents had their own gods, as did Palmyra. China, under Confucianism, was the world’s oldest empire. There, the crafty usurper Wang Mang displaced the Han Dynasty for a few unhappy years. Despite Roman hegemony in Jerusalem and most of the known world, though, the Jews would not or could not be assimilated. In her fine synthesis, journalist O’Grady (co-editor: A Deep but Dazzling Darkness: An Anthology of Personal Experiences of God, 2003, etc.) brings antiquity to vivid life, relying on myriad sources, including Horace, Josephus and Saul of Tarsus, Suetonius, Cicero, Plutarch, Schama and Gibbon. There are tunics, togas, coins, carvings, slaves and struggles, all vibrantly presented in an admirably accessible text. O’Grady demonstrates the universal symbiosis of state and faith before and during the formative years of Christianity, and she offers a secular gloss of the remarkable success of Pauline Christianity in a tumultuous world.
A wonderfully illuminating, prodigious tour de force of ecclesiastical anthropology.