The following post is the transcription of the second part of the talk I gave last summer at the ROM conference in Crikvenica! For the first part see here!

The main problem with the Graeco-Roman culture is the lack of organized moral language or the institutional will that can be clearly seen in the position of the poor. That doesn’t mean Romans or Greeks were immoral human beings incapable of altruism or selfishness. However, the truth is that the early Christians slowly spread a great change in moral language: this special concern for those who occupied not just the margins but lay beyond the margins of society. The value of care for the poor, widows, and orphans is difficult to imagine if it had not been for the impact Jesus had on his followers. These things Jesus regarded as an essential value everybody has to obey! So, from the beginning, early Christians saw not just the poor, but also the sick and dying as their neighbors, deserving the love and care. In 165 a terrible plague hit the entire Roman world. It lasted for 15 long years. There was another one nearly a century later that ran for almost 20 years. It is estimated that during these plagues in the city of Rome alone up to 5 000 people died every single day! It is worth noting that our sources inform us that the early Christians tended to stay in the cities and looked after the plague victims. In other words, there was a practical demonstration of this love that went hand in hand with the theoretical articulation of the importance of charity modeled on the example of Jesus himself that slowly and partially reformed the classical civilization. Needles to say, the underlying assumption was based on the belief that each and every person is created in the image of God (Imago Dei) so that everyone deserves care and help. A culmination of this kind of practical charity came along in 390 when the first public hospital in Western Europe was founded in Rome by a woman called Fabiola. Her life story is amazing. She came from a wealthy family. At some point in life, Fabiola became a Christian. She sold everything she had and used the money to help the poor and needy. Sources tell us that when Fabiola opened her hospital the idea of free public healthcare was so radical that no one showed up. So, Fabiola went out on the streets searching for those in need! St. Jerome noted that Rome was not large enough for her kindness.

People take for granted the notion of helping the poor and destitute as something worth following. Something we are obliged to do, whether it’s economically feasible or not. But as I said, big cultural ideas don’t just pop out of nowhere! They emerge slowly after decades, even centuries of contests in the marketplace of ideas. Agora of Athens is one of the central ancient marketplaces of ideas – a place where the greatest philosophers of all time discussed their teachings. It was a city where the big boys played: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and many others spent their time there thinking and teaching about science, philosophy, morality, etc. But, one can hardly believe what the giants of ancient philosophical thought about the poor. For example, Plato taught that the ideal city would be purged from poor people. In one of his books, Plato wrote the following: The man who suffers hunger or the like is not the man who deserves pity, but only the virtuous person who experiences some misfortune. There shall be no begging in our state. And if any man attempts to beg the market stewards shall expel him from the market, and the board of city stewards from the city, and in any other district, they shall be driven across the border to the end that the land be wholly purged of such a creature. Other philosophers made compassion for the poor sound almost illogical. Plotinus, the founder of the neo-platonic school, was convinced that there is a moral logic built into the fabric of the universe. So, if you end up poverty-stricken in this life or a slave without any rights – it is because of the bad deeds you performed in a previous life. In other words, the poor often deserve to be poor, and therefore they don’t need our help. From this mindset he stated the following: The rational principle doesn’t look only at the present on each occasion, but at the cycles of time before, and also at the future making slaves out of those who were bad masters before, and if a man used wealth badly, making them poor, and causing those who killed unjustly to be killed in their turn. There is certainly no accident in a man’s becoming a slave. We must conclude that the universal order is forever something of this kind.

Early Christians’ care for the poor, sick, and dying was criticized by the Graeco-Roman intellectual elite because in their mind the weak by definition deserved to be in an inferior position. The whole system of the Graeco-Roman world was based on the idea of coherency and rationality. Therefore, goodness and badness are not to be decided by somebody’s problem. That doesn’t mean no one cared for anyone in the Roman Empire. I’m not trying to depict Romans as selfish individuals who cared for no one. We know that emperors and wealthy benefactors did open their storehouses in times of need; they put on public games when people were bored; they shared bread with others. But, this kind of benefaction always came with a catch or two! I discuss these issues at length in my dissertation, but here I’ll have to keep it as brief as possible. Firstly, benefactions in the Roman world were only available to those who had a token of citizenship, not to the great mass of poor and destitute people in the city. It is something that was noted brought into the English speaking scholarship by a well-known historian of late antiquity Peter Brown! He wasn’t the first one who noted this crucial difference, but he helped in pushing those discoveries into the English-speaking scholarship! To understand this, one has to enter a world where the poor themselves lacked the sharp social profile they came to have in later times thanks to the works of the Church. The primary division of society, as Brown noted, was not that between rich and poor, but between citizens and non-citizens. The benefactors of cities gave their “fellow citizens” – they never gave to the poor because there wasn’t a conception of the poor as a separate social group that needs the help of others. Of course, some of these citizens might well be poor, but their poverty in itself entitled them to absolutely nothing. In other words, they received help because they were members of a socially privileged group. Furthermore, the Graeco-Roman world was defined by an honor-shame culture, and Patron‐client relations. So, there was always an expectation that the recipients of such help would repay their donors with a public honor. The connection between donations and honor was so intense that one of the words for this giving was φιλότιμο which literally means “the love of honor”. Donors loved their honor so much that they gave knowing they would receive public praise in return. It wasn’t a charity as we understand it today. You will help a sick beggar on the street without expecting him to give you any form of public honor!

Early Christians felt obliged to show charity to all, without any reservation, because they believed that charity reflected God’s character also. That is a significant change in thinking from the ethics of the Greeks and Romans that had almost nothing to do with the worship of gods. Does that mean every Christian in the 2nd or 3rd century was a charity giver? Of course not! But, one can not deny the fact that this new religion circled around the teacher from Nazareth brought a different moral landscape that slowly transformed the Roman world. This is, without a doubt, one of the greatest cultural contributions of Jesus and early Christians. The transformation itself was a slow process and we shouldn’t imagine it happened overnight. For example, Christians in the 4th century owned slaves and saw no problem in that! But the point is that the underlying assumptions have changed. Who needed our help and why we should help them? Christianization of these assumptions perpetuated a change in a moral landscape that took years and even centuries to take roots.

If I may conclude with a personal touch... As a historian of early Christianity, I’m astounded as I regularly see people who are trying to support different political and ideological ideas with the help of Jesus! So for example, there was a guy in the USA who wrote a book on historical Jesus claiming that the preacher from Nazareth was actually for lower taxes and small government. You can guess, the guy is a Republican known for his commitment to a lower tax rate and a smaller government. Jesus of Nazareth who lived 2 000 years ago in a different society and culture?! He certainly didn’t think about the necessity of the lower taxes. Others see Jesus as a proto-socialist or even proto-communist which is even more ridiculous! But, the one thing that we can and should take from him is his attitude towards others – his unbelievable ethics of charity – helping others in need regardless of their religion, gender, or social status. If we lose that, we will for sure lose our way of life. Thank you!


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