Sunday, November 12, 2023

When dinosaurs roamed the earth

‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there', wrote L.P. Hartley. Just how foreign and exotic is the past was brought home to me the other week. My wife and I went to hear the author Tom Holland give a talk on his new book, Pax: War and Peace in Rome’s Golden Age (see report here). In the opinion of Edward Gibbon, the era covered by this work (69-138AD) was ‘the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous’. Not so much, perhaps, if you were a woman.

These days there is widespread outrage if allegations are made that a powerful man has exploited his position to gain sexual favours. #MeToo scandals have engulfed the words of politics, business, entertainment and the police. All that would have made no sense in ancient Rome. It was the expectation that rich and powerful men were entitled to pounce on anyone they pleased. 

As a boy Holland was fascinated by the heroes of Rome. To him they were the awe-inspiring apex predators of history. But as he grew up and immersed himself in the ancient world, the author found himself appalled by the monstrous cruelty and depravity of Rome’s overlords. Holland realised that he was viewing the mighty emperors of old from the perspective of someone who lived in a culture that was steeped in the Christian faith. He tells that story in his previous work, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind.

In his preface to Pax, the author describes Christians living in the period of Rome’s ‘Golden Age’ as ‘Mesozoic animals in an ecosystem dominated by dinosaurs’. Those tiny Christian ‘mammals’ seemed pretty insignificant as they scurried  around at the feet of towering T-Rex figures like the emperors Trajan and Hadrian. But they sparked a revolution that still affects the way we think today.

Christians held that men as well as women are made in the image of God. That is the basis of equal rights. Christ is pictured as a husband who loved the church as his bride and gave himself up for her on the cross. In the light of that the church upheld the importance of marriage and men were forbidden to use women just as they pleased. The #MeToo movement only makes sense in that context. 

In Paul’s Letter to the Galatians we discover the meteorite that destroyed the dinosaurs. The impact of that meteorite is still sending shockwaves around the world centuries later: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3:28)

*For November editions of various local parish magazines 

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