- Compassion in Rome and America
- Compassion in Rome and America, part 2
Compassion as practiced by the early church serves as a contrast to that of the Romans and even the Jews at that time. Very often, the Jews at the time of Christ were merciless to sinners and Gentiles. Their law forbid helping a Gentile mother and her child even in the crisis of childbirth.
The Roman society, rooted in paganism, was worse. Aristotle describes what life was like in the Roman world. “The slave is no different from a living tool, and what consideration can a tool receive?” A master could kill his slave with impunity, many did. If you don’t like a tool, you throw it out. Vedius Pollio flung his slaves to the savage lampreys in the pool of his courtyard when they displeased him. That was acceptable in the Roman code which had no concept of compassion.
Kato, in his treatise on agriculture, wrote,
When you take over possession of a farm, look over the livestock and hold a sale. Sell your oil if the price is satisfactory and sell the surplus of your wine and grain. Sell worn-out oxen, blemished cattle and sheep, wool, hides, an old wagon, old tools, an old slave, a sickly slave, and whatever else is superfluous.
If it is a girl, throw it out
The ancient world also practiced the exposure of children; an unwanted child was thrown out as refuse. Hilarion writes to his wife Alise in the year 1 BC.
Hilarion to his wife Alise, warmest greetings. I want you to know that we are still in Alexandria. Don’t worry if when they all go home, I stay on in Alexandria. I beg and entreat you, take care of the little child, and as soon as we get our pay, I will send it up to you. If, good luck to you, you bear a child, if it is a boy, let it live. If it is a girl, throw it out. You told Epaphrodisus to tell me, “Don’t forget me.” How could I possibly forget you? Don’t worry.
A tender love letter from a man to his wife includes the instruction, “if you have a girl child, throw it out.” The exposure of unwanted children was normal and routine in those days.
In Stobakus this saying is found: “The poor man raises his sons, but the daughters, if one is poor, we expose.” In Plato’s Republic: “The child who is weak or sickly or ill-formed has little chance of survival.” Plato insists that only the children of better unions must be kept, and any defective child must be done away with.
“Let there be a law,” says Aristotle, “that no deformed child shall be reared.” Seneca adds,
Mad dogs we knock on the head. The fierce and savage ox we slay. Sickly sheep we put to the knife to keep them from infecting the flock. Unnatural progeny we destroy. We drown even children who at birth are weakly and abnormal. It is not anger, but reason which separates the harmful from the sound.
Change wrought by the gospel: the practice of compassion
Christianity brought a sea change to the values and behavior of the ancient world. British historian Tom Holland, in his 2019 book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, writes of the dramatic cultural change the gospel brought to the moral depravity of the ancient world.
Nevertheless, the notion that antiquity offered the present nothing save for models of virtue, nothing save for exemplars appropriate to an enlightened and progressive age, had limitations. In 1797, a book was published in Paris that provided a very different perspective. Emphasis on the ‘toleration and gentleness’ of the ancients there was not. The Persians, ‘the world’s most ingenious race for the invention of tortures’, had devised the scaphe. The Greeks, when they captured a city, had licensed rape as a reward for valour. The Romans had stocked their households with young boys and girls, and used them as they pleased. Everyone in antiquity had taken for granted that infanticide was perfectly legitimate; that to turn the other cheek was folly; that ‘Nature has given the weak to be slaves’. Over many hundreds of pages, the claim that empires in the remote past had regarded as perfectly legitimate customs that under the influence of Christianity had come to be regarded as crimes was rehearsed in painstaking detail. Provocatively, it was even suggested that a relish for displays of suffering—such as in ancient Rome had been staged as public entertainments in the very heart of the city—had been a civic good. ‘Rome was mistress of the world all the while she had these cruel spectacles; she sank into decline and from there into slavery as soon as Christian morals managed to persuade her that there was more wrong in watching men slaughtered than beasts.’ 
Into this world the Scripture introduced a foreign concept—compassion. People began to live on the basis of compassion and love because they understood these virtures reflected the heart of God. They began to create a different culture with different values.
- Darrow Miller
… to be continued
 Holland, Tom. Dominion (p. 406). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.