It has been observed, and with great propriety, that, in order to know what religion has done for an individual, we must consider what he would have been without it. The same may be said of a nation, or of the world. What would the nations of Europe have been at this time if it had not been for the introduction of Christianity? It cannot reasonably be pretended that they would have been in any better situation, as to morality, than that in which they were previously to this event; for there is no instance of any people having, by their own efforts, emerged from idolatry and the immoralities which attend it. Now, as to what that state was, some notice has been taken already, so far as relates to the principles and lives of the old philosophers. To this I shall add a brief review of the state of society among them.
Great praises are bestowed by Plutarch on the customs and manners of the Lacedemonians. Yet the same writer acknowledges that theft was encouraged in their children by a law, and that in order to “sharpen their wits, to render them crafty and subtle, and to train them up in all sorts of wiles and cunning, watchfulness and circumspection, whereby they were more apt to serve them in their wars, which was upon the matter the whole profession of this commonwealth. And if at any time they were taken in the act of stealing, they were most certainly punished with rods, and the penance of fasting; not because they esteemed the stealth criminal, but because they wanted skill and cunning in the management and conduct of it.”* Hence, as might be expected, and as Herodotus observes, their actions were generally contrary to their words, and there was no dependence upon them in any matter.
As to their chastity, there were common baths in which the men and women bathed together; and it was ordered that the young maidens should appear naked in the public exercises, as well as the young men, and that they should dance naked with them at the solemn festivals and sacrifices. Husbands also were allowed to impart the use of their wives to handsome and deserving men, in order to the producing of healthy and vigorous children for the commonwealth.
Children that were deformed, or of a bad constitution, were murdered. This inhuman custom was common all over Greece; so much so that it was reckoned a singular thing, among the Thebans, that the law forbad any Theban to expose his infant, under pain of death. This practice, with that of procuring abortion, was encouraged by Plato and Aristotle.
The unnatural love of boys was so common in Greece that in many places it was sanctioned by the public laws, of which Aristotle gives the reason; namely, to prevent their having too many children. Maximus Tyrius celebrates it as a singularly heroic act of Agesilaus, that, being in love with a beautiful barbarian boy, he suffered it to go no further than looking at him and admiring him. Epictetus also praises Socrates, in this manner: “Go to Socrates, and see him lying by Alcibiades, yet slighting his youth and beauty. Consider what a victory he was conscious of obtaining! What an Olympic prize! So that, by heaven, one might justly salute him, Hail, incredibly great, universal victor!” What an implication does such language contain of the manners of those times!
The Romans were allowed by Romulus to destroy all their female children except the eldest: and even with regard to their male children, if they were deformed or monstrous, he permitted the parents to expose them, after having shown them to five of their nearest neighbours. Such things were in common use among them, and were celebrated upon their theatres.
Such was their cruelty to their slaves, that it was not unusual for the masters to put such of them as were old, sick, and infirm into an island in the Tiber, where they left them to perish. So far did some of them carry their luxury and wantonness as to drown them in the fish-ponds, that they might be devoured by the fish, to make the flesh more delicate!
Gladiatory shows, in which a number of slaves were engaged to fight for the diversion of the multitude till each one slew or was slain by his antagonist, were common among them. Of these brutish exercises the people were extremely fond; even the women ran eagerly after them, taking pleasure in seeing the combatants kill one another, desirous only that they should fall genteelly, or in an agreeable attitude! They were exhibited at the funerals of great and rich men, and on many other occasions. So frequent did they become, that no war, it is said, caused such slaughter of mankind as did these sports of pleasure, throughout the several provinces of the Roman empire.
That odious and unnatural vice, which prevailed among the Greeks, was also common among the Romans. Cicero introduces, without any mark of disapprobation, Cotta, a man of the first rank and genius, freely and familiarly owning, to other Romans of the same quality, that worse than beastly vice as practised by himself, and quoting the authorities of ancient philosophers in vindication of it. It appears also, from Seneca, that in his time it was practised at Rome, openly and without shame. He speaks of flocks and troops of boys, distinguished by their colours and nations, and affirms that great care was taken to train them up for that detestable employment.
The religious rites performed in honour of Venus, in Cyprus, and at Aphac, on Mount Libanus, consisted in lewdness of the grossest kinds. The young people, of both sexes, crowded from all parts to those sinks of pollution; and filling the groves and temples with their shameless practices, committed whoredom by thousands, out of pure devotion.
All the Babylonian women were obliged to prostitute themselves once in their lives, at the temple of Venus, or Mylitta, to the first man that asked them; and the money earned by this means was always esteemed sacred.
Human sacrifices were offered up in almost all heathen countries. Children were burnt alive by their parents, to Baal, Moloch, and other deities. The Carthaginians, in times of public calamity, not only burnt alive the children of the best families to Saturn, and that by hundreds, but sometimes sacrificed themselves in the same manner, in great numbers. Here in Britain, and in Gaul, it was a common practice to surround a man with a kind of wicker-work, and burn him to death, in honour of their gods.*
In addition to the above, Mr. Hume has written as follows:—“What cruel tyrants were the Romans over the world, during the time of their commonwealth! It is true they had laws to prevent oppression in their provincial magistrates; but Cicero informs us that the Romans could not better consult the interests of the provinces than by repealing these very laws. For in that case, says he, our magistrates, having entire impunity, would plunder no more than would satisfy their own rapaciousness; whereas, at present, they must also satisfy that of their judges, and of all the great men of Rome, of whose protection they stand in need.”
The same writer, who certainly was not prejudiced against them, speaking of their commonwealth in its more early times, further observes, “The most illustrious period of the Roman history, considered in a political view, is that between the beginning of the first and end of the last Punic war; yet, at this very time, the horrid practice of poisoning was so common, that, during part of a season, a prætor punished capitally, for this crime, above three thousand persons in a part of Italy, and found informations of this nature still multiplying upon him! So depraved in private life,” adds Mr. Hume, “were the people, whom, in their history, we so much admire.”†
From the foregoing facts we may form some judgment of the justness of Mr. Paine’s remarks. “We know nothing,” says he, “of what the ancient Gentile world was before the time of the Jews, whose practice has been to calumniate and blacken the character of all other nations. As far as we know to the contrary, they were a just and moral people, and not addicted, like the Jews, to cruelty and revenge, but of whose profession of faith we are unacquainted. It appears to have been their custom to personify both virtue and vice by statues and images, as is done now-a-days by statuary and painting; but it does not follow from this that they worshipped them any more than we do.”‡
Unless heathens, before the times of the Jews, were totally different from what they were in all after-ages, there can be no reasonable doubt of their worshipping a plurality of deities, of which images were supposed to be the representations. Mr. Paine himself allows, and that in the same performance, that prior to the Christian era they were “idolators, and had twenty or thirty thousand gods.”* Yet, by his manner of speaking in this place, he manifestly wishes to insinuate, in behalf of all the heathen nations, that they might worship idols no more than we do. It might be worth while for this writer, methinks, to bestow a little more attention to the improvement of his memory.
With respect to their being “just and moral people,” unless they were extremely different before the time of the Jews from what they were in all after-ages, there can be no reasonable doubt of their being what the sacred writers have represented them. If those writers have said nothing worse of them than has been said by the most early and authentic historians from among themselves, it will be easy for an impartial reader to decide whether heathens have been “calumniated and blackened” by the Jewish writers, or the Jewish writers by Mr. Paine.
But it is not by the state of the ancient heathens only that we discover the importance of Christianity. A large part of the world is still in the same condition, and the same immoralities abound among them which are reported to have abounded among the Greeks and Romans.
Excerpt From: Fuller, A. G. (1988). Chapter 5, The Gospel Its Own Witness. The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Controversial Publications (J. Belcher, Ed.; Vol. 2, pp. 39–42). Sprinkle Publications.