Today I began reading Andrew Alföldi’s The Conversion of Constantine and Pagan Rome (1947), and came across this useful little comment on “paganism”.
The time is AD 311–312, on the eve of the Battle of the Mulvian Bridge (312), in which Constantine became the first earthly prince to affix the symbols of Christianity to his banner, taking Rome and the purple from his rival Maxentius; and of the Edict of Milan (313), in which Constantine and his colleague Licinius declared religious toleration throughout the empire, ending the persecution of Christianity in the Empire.
About a generation later, the Emperor Gratian (among other emperors of the following century) would turn the tables on the pagans and persecute them. But that is another story, and it is precisely this term “pagan” that is a cause of confusion.
[I]t is of some importance to note that the pagan cults were nothing but a confused medley, very loosely bound together by the customary dedications to ‘all the gods’. They had no common organization and tended to break up into their atoms. Vain were all attempts to force this chaos into a system of theology and give it organic form. The Church, on the other hand, with its complete unity, with its claim to total rule, demanded the exclusive allegiance of all its members. For this faultless religious unity was welded together by…a Socialist organization, in the modern sense of the words—and it was all based on the inner fraternity, derived from a purified love of humanity, unknown before.
Yet, closely as the organization of the Church agrees with the Socialist movement of the nineteenth century, its attitude to the State was quite a different one. It has no desire to overthrow the Empire, it does not preach hatred and battle against those strata of society on which the State rests; and, even in the midst of persecution, it tries to remain loyal and faithful.
How could Constantine fail to see the advantages of this unique organization, which had emerged victorious, nay, with strength renewed, out of the violent and terrifying attempts of the powers of the State under Decius, Diocletian, and Galerius to suppress it?
Thanks, dear reader, should you ever find me, for being the gadfly of my discipline.