Over the past two days, I’ve looked at Steven Pinker’s views on the fictive history of Homeric Greece and the imaginary world of the Hebrew Bible. Today, I’m going to look at his ideas about the Roman Empire because, well, apparently most of his critics have focused (understandably) on his mathematical and ideological arguments in The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011). Nothing in his book is what it seems, and it is perhaps telling that in this chapter’s overview of historical incidents of violence, he does not travel beyond the West—nothing of ancient China, or Vedic India, or the various peoples of Mexico.
His first task in critiquing violence in the Roman world is to dismiss the New Testament as a collection of plagiarisms framed around an ideology of violence. Regular readers will gasp in horror when they see what Pinker considers evidence for pagan Christs:
A number of pagan myths told of a savior who was sired by a god, born of a virgin at the winter solstice, surrounded by twelve zodiacal disciples, sacrificed as a scapegoat at the spring equinox, sent into the underworld, resurrected amid much rejoicing, and symbolically eaten by his followers to gain salvation and immortality.
And what is his source for this hoary old chestnut? B. G. Walker’s “Pagan Jesuses: ‘The Other Easters,” Freethought Today, Apr. 2008, pp. 6–7. Freethought Today is a newspaper of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and “B. G. Walker” is Barbara G. Walker, a feminist with an ideological bias in favor of finding “Indo-European Neolithic matriarchies.” As a committed feminist, she has worked to deconstruct modern religion as a patriarchal fantasy, but sadly that means that she relies on wildly outdated sources for her material. In one instance, she claims that the Greek heroes Iasion and Jason were pagan Christs, following the work of J. Rendell Harris, whose Boanerges (1913) made this case in the context of his belief that all religion was the worship of twins. (The Greeks used “Jason” as a transliteration of Yeshua, the Hebrew name of Jesus, for secular purposes, but they transliterated Jesus the Christ as Iesus.)
The zodiac idiocy comes from the Christ Myth school, exemplified in the work of Edward Carpenter, and thoroughly discredited nearly a century ago. The idea of gods who were intentionally sacrificed is a leftover bit of James Frazer, but it too finds no foundation in fact, for most resurrected gods (and there are many) were not sacrificed. The best known, Dumuzi or Tammuz, probably wasn’t dragged to the underworld on the equinox but rather at the summer solstice. I am not aware of any other gods whose bodies were ritually consumed; this is an old chestnut associated (falsely) with Mithras by the Christ Myth school. How could one eat a god in the pagan conception? They were not of flesh and blood, or even matter.
Pinker discounts the Pax Romana as “alleged” peace because the Romans engaged in external wars, though strangely he thinks that the past fifty years of the Pax Americana have been astonishingly peaceful despite America’s external wars. He rightly condemns the cruel spectacles of the Roman circus games, but these blood sports were not simple exercises in cruelty. At their core, they were extensions of a religious ideology of human sacrifice, where the spilled blood nourished the souls of the dead. Many of those killed in the Coliseum were criminals, who were given the sporting chance of fighting for their lives rather than facing execution. According to an estimate by Cameron Hawkins of the University of Chicago, about 5,000 gladiators died in the Coliseum each year, and no amount of revision can make the savagery of their deaths less troublesome.
However, against the Empire’s fifty or sixty million inhabitants, or even the one million of Rome itself, this number is not especially massive, certainly not enough to significantly move the meter on the overall violence of society. However, it does represent one of the most grotesque of the ancient world’s displays of casual cruelty. The Romans themselves, of course, recognized this but gave the common people their circuses to calm their inborn delinquency (Tacitus Dial. 29; Pliny the Younger Ep. 9.6). Seneca wrote that the games were “an act that was nowise human” (De brev. vit. 13.6). Death as entertainment was still a popular pastime in the nineteenth century, when families would gather to watch hangings. Today we have simply substituted simulated mutilation and execution for the real thing, though every few years there is a debate over the educative value of televising executions.
Pinker next condemns crucifixion as “an orgy of sadism,” as though the purpose of the painful, protracted ordeal were to gain pleasure from the suffering of the criminals. The purpose, for what it’s worth, was the same (regardless of whether you believe it effective) as the public hangings of the Victorian period and the chemical executions of today: deterrence and retribution. As a public display, it was meant to warn off others from committing offenses and to punish the offender in the most humiliating, painful way possible. That is why, though Pinker will not tell you, it was not an everyday punishment but one reserved for enemies of the state, pirates, and slaves—the last because the Romans considered it a warning to other slaves to keep in line. Archaeologically, the remains of only one crucified person from the early Roman Empire have ever been found, and while crucifixion could be extended into unbearable cruelty, accounts suggest that the Romans in practice typically hastened death so that the ordeal was over in a few hours, which is not necessarily crueler than the modern American practice of keeping inmates fearful of their execution for decades until it finally comes, sometimes after several false starts.
But Pinker is undoubtedly correct that the ancient Romans engaged in much more casual cruelty than we, with unspeakable tortures inflicted on those who opposed the state. He describes the (almost certainly exaggerated) ordeals of the Christian martyrs and how the Christians longed for the mortification of their flesh to send their souls skyward. Yet Pinker chooses to cite Prudentius, an author who simply made up imaginary tortures (such as those of St. Romanus of Caesaria—later applied by Scott Wolter to the “Celts” of Oklahoma) to better glorify the righteous suffering of the martyrs. Candida Moss, in the recent book The Myth of Persecution (2013) has made a strong case that these stories are all forgeries and lies, meant to create “noble” deaths analogous to those of pagan tradition.
“By sanctifying cruelty,” Pinker writes, “early Christianity set a precedent for more than a millennium of systematic torture in Christian Europe.” This confuses me. I thought Pinker’s point was that violence was declining and that the Romans had been torturing away for centuries. Now violence is increasing and becoming systematic? I don’t think, though, that there is any serious doubt that the fractured state of medieval Europe, with its hundreds upon hundreds of competing microstates, was on the whole a violent place, at least during campaign season.
Pinker then tours more recent history, highlighting various forms of atrocity, concluding with this thought about the special place of America today:
Readers of this book (and as we shall see, people in most of the rest of the world) no longer have to worry about abduction into sexual slavery, divinely commanded genocide, lethal circuses and tournaments, punishment on the cross, rack, wheel, stake, or strappado for holding unpopular beliefs, decapitation for not bearing a son, disembowelment for having dated a royal, pistol duels to defend their honor, beachside fisticuffs to impress their girlfriends, and the prospect of a nuclear world war that would put an end to civilization or to human life itself.
Really? While such acts of violence are no longer the explicit goal of state and organizational actors, we have our own equivalents today. To wit: (a) there are more than a thousand sex trafficking incidents in the U.S. each year, which does not count individuals like Ariel Castro, accused of holding women captive as sex slaves; and more than 700,000 women and children are trafficked as sex slaves worldwide each year, according to the International Justice Mission; (b) genocides have recently occurred or are occurring in areas as diverse as the Balkans, Rwanda, and the Sudan, while civilized countries engage in non-lethal ethnic cleansing and call it “deportation” to an uncertain and insecure external land; (c) bizarre and cruel tortures are practiced throughout the world, and even here in the United States a disturbing number of people consider forced anal sodomy to be a “legitimate” or “expected” component of a prison sentence; (d) the unpopular beliefs punished with cruelty have changed and are now associated with interminable prison sentences for use of substances disfavored by the elite; (e) anyone who doubts that duels and fisticuffs are gone has never been to a bar or a college campus on a Friday night—we may not call it “honor” today, and they may not be stylized or organized, but fights to defend one’s masculinity are in essence the same; and (f) nuclear weapons did not vanish with the fall of the Soviet Union, and it is possible now that non-state actors could get hold of such a weapon and set it off in a populated area without warning.
So, if you’re a rich, white American (preferably male and usually middle aged) in an upscale community, Pinker is absolutely right: You live in a world free from violence. But if you are not, then your life is probably about as likely to be violent as that of the average person of Roman times: This, though, strikes at the heart of Pinker’s idea. He wants us to compare only the ten years from 2001 to 2011 as representative of modern peacefulness (indeed, he notes the 1960s and 1970s were very violent) to the thousands of years of Antiquity, compressing all of the wars and atrocities of those thousands of years into one orgy of violence. How does he know that these ten years are not anomalies? How does he know that, for example, the ten years from 150-160 CE or 1750 to 1740 BCE were not, on the average, less violent? What, after all, is an average person of an era? The peasant farmer who might never see a solider or anyone beyond his home village, or the urban elite engaged in power politics? Until the modern era, the lonely farmer was numerically the representative person, not the violent rich who left us our historical records.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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