As the ancient Roman empire moved into the late antiquity, the empire began to feel the impact of the significant Christian minority inside the empire. At the same time, it appears that the early Christian scholars picked up the dominant philosophies of the time and began to be influenced by it.
Also, the emperor and the imperial government began to have more of a presence in the various cities of the empire. So most of the upper classes began to rely of the emperor’s good graces to maintain their class status. Many of the old ways and customs began to transform in accordance with the times. As the emperor Constantine established the Christian religion as the official religion, this process accelerated.
Sacrifice has been a common motif in every religious tradition. Ancient Vedic rituals involved sacrificing real animals thousands of years ago when they began. However, as time went on, the sacrifices changed to more symbolic representatives of animals.
As humans evolve, it appears that the idea of sacrifice is a continuing one. But as civilization has progressed, the human mind has come to realize that sacrifices can be made on a more abstract and conceptual level.
As one reads about the daily lives of ancient Romans, one runs across the two major schools of philosophy: stoicism and epicureanism. These schools, along with other smaller schools such as cynicism, contended for the minds of the citizens of the Roman Empire. However, these schools were not proselytizing by nature. Citizens were attracted to them per individual tastes and mindsets.
Alongside this, one observes that the intellectuals among the ancient Romans, such as Cicero, were not great believers in the pagan gods of the day. The attitude to religion overall was that of customary common practice, rather than having a prepackaged set of beliefs which had to be digested by each follower. It appears that it was mainly near the Eastern borders of the empire that people were more prone to pay obeisance to their potentates and thus, had a more servile attitude towards their gods.
We read about patrimony, evergetism, and other interesting practices of the ancient Romans.
Also, it is interesting that the Romans regarded the gods as merely one step above the humans, who were in turn seen as one step above animals. So, the cultured Romans did not believe in a servile relationship with gods unlike the peoples of Eastern regions of those times.
Slavery was seen as quite natural and part of daily life, although some of the followers of stoicism later on did have reservations with this practice.
All these and other fascinating details can be gleaned from the fascinating History Of Private Life. This is a multi-volume work encompassing periods all the way from ancient Rome to the modern day.
One can get into taking for granted when things go well. Taking India, for example, it pays to remember the quagmire of the License Raj. The nation was in dire straits in 1991 after decades of centralized mismanagement. It had come to the brink of defaulting on its obligations. The central government had to use the nation’s gold bullion as collateral in return for a loan from the IMF. Under the able leadership of P. V. Narasimha Rao, India was able to adhere to the terms of the IMF and liberalize the economy in return for getting bailed out. In doing so, Narasimha Rao was saving the civilization from economic collapse. Today, India is seeing a return to some level of prosperity, although it is by no means out of the woods yet.
A much worse scenario was seen in other countries like Romania. As part of a government mandate, women were required to have as many children as possible. Given the overall poverty, children ended up getting abandoned and orphanages overflowed. Many lives were lost because of centralized mismanagement.
What decentralization and the great benefits property rights brings to societies cannot be underestimated. Central planning and central management bring no accountability and any mistakes made affect vast numbers of people. On the other hand, economies that are antifragile are managed locally. Any mistakes made only affect locals and such mistakes are corrected because it is much easier to enforce accountability.
“plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”
This is a saying in French which translates to “more a thing changes, the more it remains the same”.
When looking at the history of ancient societies like Rome, for example, it appears that people of those times faced some similar pains, worries and concerns as would a person of today.
It is remarkable how much social organization has changed thanks to technology, evolution of law and other factors.
At the same time, it seems that the human nature has remained similar to the ancient generations. Fear of public disapproval, desire to get ahead, love of family are examples of aspects which apparently have not changed much from ancient times.
When reading about how some ancient peoples used to live, it seems clear that at every stage of historical development, there were codes of ethics, morality and civic duties which were part of society.
For example, in ancient Rome, the concept of marriage evolved from a matter of convenience to a moral requirement during the transition from republic to empire. So, the morality of late Roman pagan society blended well into early Christianity.
Throughout all this, morality continued to be viewed and taught among the populace via a series of myths. These myths have evolved over thousands of years of human experience. One can find such myths in every society from East to West.
Given that these myths are the product of millennia of human experience and knowledge, they continue to be valid today. Human beings of today have not evolved to be a lot different biologically from our ancestors from a few thousand years ago. We still face similar limitations in knowledge and understanding of ourselves, others and the world around us. As a result, it seems to make sense to study and understand ancient myths as these may give us insights about ourselves and the world around us.
When asked to give an account of the previous day, most people have to pause and think before remembering what they did. The problem gets magnified when asked what they did, for example, last Thursday. The problem gets even more magnified when collecting factual accounts of an entire street of people for a week.
One can only imagine the level of complexity reached when dealing with the history of a town, then a region, followed by that of an entire country. The human brain cannot handle such complexity in many instances. So, we end up with historians coming up with some or the other pithy narrative of what they think happened. This is the basis of the narrative fallacy.
So, in studying history, one needs an extra level of rigor to avoid the narrative fallacy. Then, the next step seems to be that the personal diaries and individual accounts of people living in those times are the best resource in such research.
The time after the fall of the Roman Empire was a period of civilizational change. The Roman Empire had been one of the great civilizations. It covered a massive portion of the known world. Towards it’s decline, it split into the Western and the Eastern halves. The Eastern half continued as the Greek-influenced Byzantine Empire for a thousand more years before being overrun by the Ottomans (who, in some ways, saw themselves as the successors of Rome).
In the West, the fall of the empire occurred through a gradual but eventually dramatic takeover by the Goths and other tribes. These tribes took over the former empire via immigration and a series of invasions. The fall brought about a period of questioning and relative lack of vibrancy. It was with the Renaissance that they rediscovered its bearings. The West began to bloom again. With the onset of the scientific and industrial revolutions, the West regained its civilization in a way.
When looking at a subject like history, it can be tempting to make sweeping generalizations.
Many people have gone down the rabbit hole of forming overarching concepts for history. The next natural step is to retroactively try to make all the historical events fit to such theories.
There are several problems with such an exercise. One of the main problems is that a human social event involving multiple individuals at different points of time and spread out geographically has too many factors influencing it. So any one theory or explanation fails to meet the reality check.
So it is often better to go to the first hand sources and be very rigorous in our study of history.