While translating the 4th century attack on paganism by Firmicus Maternus, I was struck by the content of chapter eight, which begins as follows:
If the sun gathered all humanity assembled together for him to address them, he would undoubtedly attack your despair by a discourse such as this: “So who, weak mortals, revolting every day and in every way against the supreme god, has pushed you, in your perverse taste for a profane error, to this great crime of claiming, according to your pleasure, sometimes that I am alive, sometimes that I am dead? If only you would follow one tradition, and apply to me only one invention of your unhealthy imagination! If only the perfidy of your wicked thought would gave itself free play without covering me with shame! But in throwing yourselves into these abysses, you do not spare me either, and your language respects nothing, but you dishonour me while running to your death and your loss.
2. “Some with a mad eagerness claim that in Egypt I damaged myself in the waves of the Nile and his fast swirls; others weep for the loss which I have suffered of the sexual parts; others make me perish by a painful death, and sometimes boil in a pot, sometimes I have my members torn and impaled on seven spikes. He who flatters me a little by a more balanced account says that I am the coachman of a quadriga. Finish and reject these so disastrous follies, and take this profitable advice: seek the true way of salvation.”
Firmicus Maternus has had nothing good to say of paganism, and has just described the frivolous manner in which the Greeks pay off their obligations to others cheaply by deifying them and superficially worshipping them. Yet here he imagines the sun addressing them, and describes the idea that the sun is the driver of a quadriga as “a more balanced account” than the other myths.
Of course he is right to describe this as more wholesome; but what is interesting is the more positive tone that he takes altogether towards the sun, towards Sol. The late Roman state sun god, Sol Invictus, is frequently depicted in his quadriga.
Firmicus Maternus is addressing the two emperors. Perhaps it is not politic to attack a cult so strongly attached to the late imperial image, a cult founded by Aurelian and patronised strongly by the emperors of the Tetrarchy, from which Constantine and his house derive their legitimacy.
But equally possible is that Firmicus Maternus recognises that solar worship in these forms is tending towards Christianity. Paganism was syncretic. Pagans in late antiquity were not necessarily predisposed to reject Christ, any more than Hindus are; rather they rejected his uniqueness. Was it altogether a huge step to move in imagination from the worship of the single and unconquered Sun and adopt a mighter Sun, the Sun of Justice, Sol Iustitiae, Jesus Christ? Perhaps not. The use of the title Sol Iustitiae for Christ by Fathers such as Jerome himself suggests that the uniqueness of the sun predisposed some to accept monotheism. In the transitional period no doubt all sorts of compromises were made.
However it is a mistake to presume that people can be “blurred” into Christianity. They can “blur” out of it equally easily. Unless there is a positive personal commitment to serve Christ ourselves, we will always psychologically be looking back. This tendency, this failure to truly convert, is very marked in many people supposedly Christians in this period. Perhaps this is why?