Ancient Empires: Reflections on the Spiritual Conquerers of the First Century

An entirely different type of conqueror also profoundly affected these Mediterranean lands. I am talking about the first Christians who arrived in the first century.
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My wife and I had an opportunity to join an archaeological tour of Turkey with friends. We decided to visit Greece and Italy at the same time. We spent an entire month in this interconnected region.

Turkey and Greece have been assaulted by invading armies since the earliest recorded history. Even their legendary times, like the Trojan War, involved protracted military campaigns and sieges of impregnable fortresses.

Under Alexander the Great, the Greeks conquered Turkey and Persia and most of the known world as far as India. A few centuries later, the Romans subjugated this region and built a world empire that lasted 700 years. After that, the Byzantine Empire ruled the Mediterranean region for nearly 1000 years.

From about 1400 to 1800, the Ottoman Turks dominated the entire Mediterranean region, and controlled much of Egypt, Arabia and parts of Europe. They became the most powerful empire on earth. Although Emperor Charles V was the most powerful ruler in Europe, he trembled at the military might of the Turkish Sultan. Fortunately for Charles, the reigning Sultan died right when the Turkish armies were poised to take Vienna and to sweep further into Europe.

At any given time, Turkey, Greece, and Italy were either ruling their neighbors or being ruled by them. And nowhere is this more evident than in the city of Istanbul, where our recent trip began. This city has been settled for at least 2,500 years, but it did not gain prominence until the Roman Emperor Constantine decided to make this city the new capital of the Roman Empire (which soon morphed into the Byzantine Empire). Constantine left Italy because Northern tribes were threatening to take Rome, which fell less than a century later. The Emperor Constantine named his city after himself: Constantinople. Later the city name changed to Byzantium and then finally to Istanbul.

There are many visible remnants of these ancient empires. Museums overflow with statues, weapons, costumes, thrones, coins and sarcophagi commemorating ancient generals and kings. Ancient city ruins have been excavated and partly restored. Old stone roads that were built 2,000 years ago still run through flourishing fields today. In Turkey, history lives visibly on.

Spiritual Conquerors

An entirely different type of conqueror also profoundly affected these Mediterranean lands. Small bands of unarmed travelers walked along Roman roads with an entirely different vision of conquest. I am talking about the first Christians who arrived in the first century. They sought to build an empire of the spirit. The evidence is hard to find at first glance. They left few objects to be found in museums nor did they build monuments. But in another sense, the evidence left by these spiritual conquerors is immense.

Saul of Tarsus was the most notable early Christian missionary. He started his life as a devout Jew and rose to high leadership in that community. When Christians started attracting many Jewish followers, Saul led the movement to exterminate them completely. But on a trip to Damascus, where he planned to arrest and kill, Saul was struck down by an overpowering vision of Jesus speaking to him from Heaven. Within a few days, Saul was transformed and became Paul the devout Christian messenger.

Paul walked on lots of Roman roads with Barnabas, Silas, Mark, and Timothy to found new churches throughout Turkey. Later, Paul and his companions moved on to Greece and Italy. Their intention was radically different from the plundering soldiers that lay waste to every region they passed through. Instead of mass subjugation, these missionaries taught equality of all races, classes, and of male and female. They build new communities based on love and compassion, rather than on wealth and power.

Their teaching was deep love and compassion for all people: love for family, for neighbors, for strangers and for foreigners. Never before had such a compelling spiritual vision been offered with such great self-sacrifice. These messengers were opposed, outlawed, tortured and killed in every city they visited. But still they marched on.

Leadership in early Christian communities was demonstrated by humility and by willingness to suffer. The Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the church in Rome to explain his vision:

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us ... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In today's post-Christian world of Europe and North America, we forget how profoundly the Christian message changed history. It soon spread throughout Italy and prospered during the Dark Ages. St. Benedict built the first Italian monastery, which we visited at Monte Cassino in the mountains of southern Italy. Other monasteries soon spread out from there.

Eventually, all the pagan tribes of Europe were converted to Christianity. Obviously, "converted" is a relative term, since no tribe or nation has ever become fully "Christian". Even today I wince at things said and done supposedly in the name of Christ.

But the transformation of Europe was unmistakable. Read Sir Arnold Toynbee's Study of History and his analysis of all civilizations that have been known since recorded history began. Though not a Christian himself, Sir Arnold credited Christianity with being the fundamental element of European Civilization. For centuries, this civilization was labeled "Christendom." Later it became known as "Western Civilization," and now its law, economics, and social vision have swept over the whole world.

Western Civilization brought us our calendar, our legal system, our modern concept of morality, social justice, public service, and the equality of all races and gender. It inspired universities, built hospitals, and freed slaves. Though many scholars in the twenty-first century consider Christianity obsolete, they forget what the world was like before it arrived.

I am not a fundamentalist. I have high regard for other religious traditions. I believe in fresh spiritual insights for every century. But to deny our debt to these first-century Christian pioneers is unthinkable. Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein, and the best thinkers of our planet have recognized the potency for societal transformation that Jesus inspired.

Obviously, many bad things have been done by people allegedly following Jesus Christ. But these so-called followers with their personal agendas of coercion can never offset the world transformation brought about by his sublime teaching.

By contrast, memories of the great Mediterranean kings have been mostly lost in the sands of time. We still see lovely statues, crowns, jewelery, and crumbling monuments built in their honour. But they didn't fundamentally change history. People hardly remembered which marauding army had come through last. Their glory was in rampage, blood-lust, and plunder.

The great English Romantic poet Percy Shelley wrote Ozymandias, which is about the futile poignancy of earthly conquest:

I met a traveler from an antique land

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal these words appear:

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Far better then generals or kings were those spiritual pilgrims who conquered their own minds, and who learned not to lose their temper. They helped gradually transform a violent society into one that is more gentle. These spiritual conquerors achieved the true immortality that former kings and emperors only dreamed of. They brought us a taste of the Kingdom of Heaven.

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