Religious syncretism and early Christianity of the third century
Christ and Orpheus
on the altar of the emperor
There is an interesting document of Roman history that goes from Hadrian (117-138 of the Christian era) to Carino (283-285): it is the Historia Augusta, named by the erudite Swiss historian of the 500s, Isaac Casaubon, who collected a series of biographies of Roman emperors of that period. Even if the source is later and not without blunders and anachronisms, it is interesting for its reconstruction of the backdrop of the first half of the third century, an era which was marked on the one hand by a complex and significant historical, social and religious evolution and on the other, by a strongly contentious political transition which ushered in the Severi dynasty (193-235) and led to the military anarchy of the so-called barbarian emperors, Massimino il Trace (235-238) and Gallieno (253-268).
The Severi era was marked by a climate of religious tolerance, very different from the atmosphere which surrounded Decio and Valerian and their heavy anti-Christian repression from 250 and 258. The Historia Augusta reminds us that the Emperor Alessandro Severo (222-235) venerated at dawn in his “lararium” portraits of his ancestors, images of several emperors, the figure of Apollonio of Tiana, but also the icons of Christ, Abraham and Orpheus (according to Elio Lampridio in his Life of Alessandro Severo, 29,2, mentioned in the Historia Augusta). This syncretism was widespread in the empire at the time and the roman pantheon unhesitatingly gathered together the figures, ideas, symbols and cults of the Orient, creating an intercultural and multi-religious climate which corresponded to the multi-ethnic make-up of the populations of the metropoli and of the empire.
Christianity radiated from within this political, cultural and religious climate. It did not bring with it a particular artistic identity, but not because it wanted to deliberately hide itself for fear of possible persecution or eventual hostilities but out of a natural process of integration in the civilization of that era.
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