I've been realizing that study of the ancient Greco-Roman world is also an amazing arena in which to think about and test theories of memetics - or the transmission of ideas. At the height of Roman rule, trade and travel throughout the empire were easy and safe, and also were possible over a more expansive geographical area than ever before. Travel from Britain to Jerusalem (approximately 2,500 miles) among wealthier pilgrims was well documented, if not routine. You have to remember that this was highly anomalous in the course of settled civilization (or before for that matter), and indeed European people would never enjoy such ease of travel again until the 19th century. The Empire at its fullest extent (1st and 2nd centuries C.E.) completely enclosed both the coastlines of the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea to the Northeast. Port cities were central urban nodes in the network, travel was be quick by ancient standards.
As a side note, the Roman Empire's size, along with the economy that it enabled, was certainly comparable to the contemporaneous Han Dynasty in China (206 BCE - 220 CE). Both empires spanned an area that enabled them access to (and trade of) a vast range of natural resources due to the diversity of constituent biomes and unique ecological niches that lay within the empire's borders. Although the Roman Empire is unique because of its enclosure of a sizable sea (two, actually), which as I mentioned completely accounted for the way trade routes were established and on which the [quickest] lines of communication (idea pipelines) were hence based. The land area of the Roman Empire at its height and the Han Dynasty at its height are remarkably comparable: 6,500,000 square kilometers for the Roman Empire (c. 117 CE) and 6,000,000 for the Han (c. 50 BCE). However, I unfortunately know very little about Chinese history, other than having the general sense that it is a really badass culture that had little direct contact with the Hellenistic world B.C.E with the notable exception of the trade of silk. Btw, if anyone is interested I found this cool gif on Wikipedia that shows the morphing geographic map of the Chinese Dynasties over the last couple of thousand years! Very helpful indeed.
I don't think it would be silly to say that the Roman Empire represented one of the first instances of globalization of the culture of the dear great ape.
A tribal species, mind you. As such we still remain. And the inoculation of this social animal, this creature of the tribe and the clan, into an ancient Greco-Roman city was perhaps even more antithetical to our evolutionary programming than is habitation of the urban built environment today. The population density of Antioch in Syria, for example, is estimated to have been over 150 inhabitants per acre. That is within a fortified city a few square miles in size, with not much vertical development (20 meters at the very highest). Moreover, much of the area of ancient cities (as much as 30%) was taken up by civic buildings and structures, like stadiums, amphitheaters and temples, that were not inhabited. Shit was crowded!
It was in this ecology - that of the Greco-Roman city, that Christianity—that curious, viral compendium of ideas, the "religion" that would come to define all religions—was born. It was a cult of the urban underground.
Christianity was a new beast in the ecology of the ancient Mediterranean world because it was a sacred cosmology that quickly became based on, and fully comprised of, ideas and philosophy, not ritual, ethnicity, nationality, tribal identity or ecology (many have compared it to Buddhism in this regard, which began on the Indian subcontinent around the 5th century BCE). Indeed there were cosmological, philosophy-based religions preceding it in the ancient Near East like Zoroastrianism, but what I'm trying to get at here is the semiotic ecology from which Christianity directly emerged. There was no similar idea-based religion or philosophy of salvation seeking to universalize itself that characterized the landscape of the ancient G.R. world. Christianity quickly became "disembedded" from the Jewish cultural topography from which it had sprung—philosopher of religion Daniel Boyarin explains that it was the polemical need to distinguish the Jesus movement from encompassing traditional Rabbinical/Temple religion that constructed the idea of the "Jewish religion" in the modern sense, and even the conceptual category of "religion" itself! An interesting reference point: The word "Judaism" or Iudaismos was almost never used before the 1st century (per the historical record and all that it implies of course). In any case, it becomes very clear when studying the development of the Christian religion that as with all identity, collective or individual, the construction of Christian identity involved the concomitant construction of what it was not. And thus in the act of naming the other, the opponent, the not-us, we actually inaugurate a new phase in the evolution of that identity... a project which in many cases quickly leaves the hands of the namer and is undertaken by the group that is named (Judith Butler articulates the "violence of naming" quite well). Daniel Boyarin mentions that the followers of Jesus themselves were first called Christians in Antioch by non-Christians, and it is implied that the term was objectifying and derogatory.
The history of the initial spread of Christianity, through its legalization by Constantine in 313 for essentially imperial and military purposes, its later adoption as the official religion of the republic by Theodosius in 380, to the fascinating ways in which it fused with Germanic and Saxon culture is a very thought provoking meditation on the nature of cultural transmission. The mingling of Roman and Germanic cultures in particular, despite the common conception of Christianity "winning" over "barbarian" or "pagan" religion, subjected Christianity it to a dynamic, reciprocal morphology which trickled back to have top-down effects on the development of Catholic liturgy in particular. It made Roman Catholicism and for that matter all Protestant developments what they are today.
Part of what makes the fusion of Roman and Germanic culture so interesting (and the attempts by the ruling classes to reconcile the differing world-views) is that 4th and 5th century Germanic world could not be more different from the Roman world. Just a disclaimer, I'm going to engage in gross generalizations here, but luckily the point will still remain, as there is no question about the vast differences in values and cosmology between these "two" cultures. The very fabric of society was woven differently: the peoples living north of the Danube River were a largely clan-based, rural, often land-locked society, totally decentralized compared to Rome. They were a boreal forest-dwelling warrior-culture, to whom warfare (raiding) was a routine part of their economy and self-protection. Additionally in-group and family solidarity was high — unlike in the increasingly specialized world of the Roman city, where the symbolic systems of writing and money colonized and organized life, there existed a veritable marketplace of religious ideas and philosophies that naturally were divisive, and also Roman girls were often married as young as 12. Group solidarity in Germanic society was maintained through multiple social structures and mechanisms—the family or kin group, the local warrior-group or "company", and the relationship between each man and their Chieftain. The patronage system provided comparable (but much weaker, or not as empowering to smaller groups of people, in my opinion) social glue in Roman society, as it only operated in a vertical fashion, tying one person to a wealthier one who was in turn indebted to an aristocrat of even higher status, all the way up to the Emperor (theoretically). Although, this system was built on the proto-globalized financial structure of the empire - that is, it was concerned with the vertical flow or "trickle down" of symbolic prestige and did not incorporate mechanisms for "horizontal" group cohesion. Of course, much of this simply represents the natural differences in the valuation paradigms of "city-dwellers" that live within a very large system that naturally necessitates widely-deployed complex symbolic framework in order to function, and pastoral people who occupy loosely connected islands or pockets that are much smaller, more easily "closed" systems.
One fascinating reference point for the syncretism between Germanic and Roman cultures, and the task at hand therein, is the Heliand, an amalgamation of the four Christian gospels into a 6,000 line epic poem. It was written in Old Saxon in the 9th century and to the modern reader would perhaps be redolent of Beowulf, the famous Germanic saga from around the same time period. The Heliand is a tacit (though not overt) re-interpretation of the gospel story since the author took great care to present the story in a meta-language familiar to the cosmography and cosmology of his audience. Like Beowulf the Heliand (Old Saxon for "Savior") is the story of a great warrior, although in this case it is a warrior of peace: Christ. He is repeatedly referred to in the Heliand as "Chieftain" and has many epithets including the Champion of mankind, the Ruler's Child, the Guardian of the Land, The Land's herdsman, the Healer, and the Rescuer.
The twelve apostles are pictured as Christ's loyal band of warriors ("fighting men"), temples are referred to as shrines, the last supper and wedding at Cana take place at great mead-halls, and Christ is hanged on a tree (a "criminal tree"), to name just some of the amazing native imagery evoked by the Heliand poet. After Christ's 40 days in the desert, it is out of the "deep woods" from which he emerges - echoing the sacred ecology of the Germanic people. It is an important comment on the way environment, especially ecology, become small-scale maps of the entire cosmos, particularly in the "pre-modern" world (although the cognitive vestiges of this world-mapping I believe are very much still with us).
Runic magic also exerts its presence in the text; the author of the Heliand begins the first "song" (or verse) by explaining that sacred knowledge of "God's spells" was exclusively passed on to the four evangelists - thus it was them who were able to write and "chant" the true gospel. Here the word of God, or Christ's deeds, is also described as the "secret runes". A footnote by translator and commentator G. Ronald Murphy elucidates:
giruni. The word not only implies that the gospel is a secret mystery, but that it is of the power of the magic spells and charms written in the Runes of the Northern world. This same rich expression, giruni, will be used by the author to introduce the 'secret runes' of the Lord's Prayer.
Also alluding to runic power, the song which retells the story of the last supper is titled "The words of Christ give great powers to the bread and wine".
The Heliand is haunting and enchanting thing to read, especially I think for those with Anglo-Saxon heritage or who have grown up in a similar bioregion to that which was the setting for the Heliand. It may be one of the most beautiful texts in the Christian West.
I'm going somewhere with all this, I promise! I suppose what fascinates me in the study of the "epidemiology" of a belief system is the continual reminder that in the mechanics of idea transmission within and between cultures and the "world-view revolutions" that sometimes result, no one ever creates a new ontological category. Ever. An ontological category is a cognitive designation into which a thing or object falls, and coupled with each ontological category (I speculate) is the subject-object relation that category of thing implies (in other words: its functional relationship to the one perceiving).
If a brand new concept is created that does not "fit", even awkwardly, into a pre-existing ontological category, that idea or meme rarely survives. In the same way, nature doesn't ever create a brand new kind of organism with no evolutionary antecedent, and perhaps the closest nature comes to doing that is in the case of extreme mutations, most of which are crippling to the organism and result in its death. Ideas, too, must evolve -- and I am talking specifically about epistemological ideas—ideas constitutive of one's world-view. The question is, how much can an ontological category be stretched—or have its rules bent—before it ceases to be that category? It seems to me that concepts can be re-shaped to surprising degrees but must retain their essential categorical functionality. This is related to the idea in the cognitive science of religion of minimally-counterintuitive concepts.
"Conversion" is an illusory concept that in its more abrupt and propaganda-friendly form is merely an incredibly sped up (and also retroactively understood) paradigm shift. Even such conversion does not constitute the creation of new ontological categories, it merely fills to the brim categories that were almost so withered or atrophied as to be unknown, or replaces almost everything within an ontological category with new parts (still not creating something ex nihilo). "Conversion" never happens en masse on a phenomenological level, but rather it takes on the same pattern as scientific revolution as outlined by Thomas Kuhn (although some tellers of history with theological agendas would have us believe the former). As one of my classmates said of colonial religions that often spread initially forcibly throughout new cultures, Christianity is often "as wide as the sea but only an inch deep".
Christian ideas, particularly with regard to the persons of Christ and Mary, have been re-made century after century— their nature and character at any given time, in any given "text", simply the current manifestation of the cognitive history of an entire ontological category. Their relationships with or relations to human devotees are re-conceptualized and I am convinced are as numerous as are ecological niches throughout the world. This is no coincidence, as sacred presence (if not "religion") is an ecological category - even in the urban landscape where the "ecology" is a concrete, geometric, mostly inorganic one. That environment too creates its own God, creates its own unique definition of the sacred. The Christianization of the warrior-God Odin or Woden (and also to a lesser extent the Saxonization of Christ) merely represents one of the first most monumental acheivements in the history of globalization: the fusion of two very different concepts that shared an ontological category—or if you like the mutation of the Christ meme, resulting in it emerging more 'virulent' and successful. This is why its important to study religion, and why it can't just be ignored or deemed a 'cognitive delusion'. That charge misses the mark. The history and morphology of the idea of what is sacred form a snaking path through the complicated, messy story of the homo sapien: and every link in the chain is like a crystal ball at each vertex of Indra's net: simultaneously reflecting the entire encompassing world at that instant and also condensing that same world into a shimmering semiotic amulet, a sigil whose footnote is a view of the entire universe from a very specific place within it.