In this interview, Plough’s Peter Mommsen speaks with Tom Holland, the historian, cricket fan, and podcaster, about how Christianity changed humanity’s view of suffering.
Peter Mommsen: Since our topic is so vast, you and I have agreed to structure our conversation about the history of pain by picking a sculpture, a painting, and three famous figures from history. Let’s start with the artworks. One is the Greco-Roman sculpture of Laocoön, and the other is Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of Saint Peter. The first is pagan, while the second is obviously Christian. What happened between the two of these?
Tom Holland: The statue of Laocoön tells a story that appears in Virgil’s Aeneid and is set in the Trojan War. The Greeks have left this strange horse and the Trojans think, “Let’s take it inside the walls of Troy.” Laocoön hurls a spear at the side of the horse, and there’s a clanging sound, suggesting, perhaps, that there are men in armor inside it.
At that moment, snakes appear from the sea and crush Laocoön in their coils. This seems to the Trojans a marker that by striking the horse, Laocoön has committed an offense against the gods. But in fact, they are crushing him for a quite different offense. The result of this confusion is the annihilation of Troy. What you get there is the sense that mortals are the playthings of the gods, and often the gods take pleasure in destroying humans. It’s what Shakespeare articulates many centuries later in King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods / they kill us for their sport.”
By contrast, the Caravaggio shows the crucifixion of Peter. What is expressive of a radical change from the classical period is that the humiliation implicit in a crucifixion has been transmuted – Peter is the hero of this painting. He isn’t being mocked by the gods; he isn’t a creature whose hopes have been dashed by fate. Because of course we know that Peter will emerge as the rock on which Christ’s church is built, and that his heirs will succeed the Caesars as the masters of Rome and stand at the head of the Christian church.
Why would a humiliated hero have seemed foreign to the creators of the Laocoön?
For the Greeks and Romans, the ability to withstand excruciating pain was the measure of a man. The classic example is Mucius Scaevola, who according to the historian Livy infiltrates the enemy camp, is captured, is told to reveal what he knows, and as a mark of his contempt for that demand, thrusts his hand into the fire until it’s consumed without once letting out a hint of pain. This is the kind of story the Romans adored. The pain endured by a hero becomes the measure of a hero.
So by definition, the victim of a crucifixion can’t be heroic?
The whole point of crucifixion is to humiliate and degrade. It is the punishment seen as paradigmatically suited to a rebellious slave. Not only is it excruciatingly painful and protracted – you could survive on the cross for days – but it’s also public. You are hung up there like a piece of meat, and your sufferings are objects of public ridicule. There’s nothing you can do to brush away the birds who might peck out your eyes or attack your genitals. You can’t stop people from watching your gasps and heaving breath as you struggle to lift yourself up to gulp for air. It’s this that makes you serve as a billboard of Roman power.
This is the penalty that is visited on rebels against Roman rule out in the provinces, and so it becomes the fate suffered by Jesus. The titulus, the board affixed above his head by Pilate’s orders, says that he is the king of the Jews. And there can be no king of the Jews in a Roman province.
The Romans themselves were hesitant to speak about the realities of crucifixion. Why?
They found it sordid. They felt that it was beneath them to represent it in art, even to write about it. Josephus describes how Titus, the Roman general, had his soldiers crucify vast numbers of captives before the walls of Jerusalem. But he doesn’t describe what it was like to be sentenced to that, what the process is, how long you might spend on the cross, what happens to the body once the person is dead. It’s only in the Gospels that we get that. And the Gospel writers, of course, are not writing as Romans.
Even for them, though, the cross was still a “scandal” in a powerfully visceral way.
Saint Paul says it’s a stumbling block to the Jews, but to everyone else – to the Greeks, to the Romans – it’s a scandal. For Paul, the fact that Jesus was crucified lies at the heart of Jesus’ mission and of how he relates to God’s plan. That’s why everything – the very character of the world, of God, of God’s relationship to humanity – has been upended by this. It is the most shocking thing imaginable.
Into the second and third centuries, Christian writers seem embarrassed to talk about the crucifixion. For critics of Christianity, both pagan and Jewish, the manner of Jesus’ death becomes an attack point that they return to again and again. Even once Constantine has converted and the Roman Empire starts to become largely Christian, there is a reluctance to portray Jesus on the cross.
One of the earliest such portrayals by a Christian is an ivory in the British Museum that was done in the early fifth century, a century after Constantine’s conversion. It shows Jesus as an athlete. He’s nailed to the cross, but he’s looking unbelievably buff and he’s wearing the loincloth of an Olympic victor. His expression is calm and dignified. That’s a tradition that persists throughout the centuries, certainly in the Orthodox world, up to the present. There’s a reluctance to dwell on the agonies, the horrors, the suffering, the full ordeal.
Yet at the same time, from the beginning Christ’s suffering becomes a pattern for the suffering of the martyrs: suffering as an imitatio Christi, an imitation of Christ. As Paul says, without the example of Christ, without the fact that he rose from the dead, it would all be madness without significance; suffering would simply be suffering. But because Christ has provided this model of triumph over suffering, those who follow him can share in it.
At the back of any portrayal of the saints, including Caravaggio’s, is always the image of Christ on the cross. Caravaggio paints Saint Peter as an old man, clearly suffering. He’s not an athlete as in the fifth-century ivory crucifix; he’s not a figure of dignity. That stands in the line of the portrayal of Christ that emerges in Latin Christendom. Around the year 1000, you start to get portrayals of Christ in his full suffering on the cross. Over the centuries that follow, the emphasis on Christ’s sufferings becomes more and more intense, and so does the sense of identification that Christians feel with those sufferings.
There’s a second-century record of martyrs who were thrown into the arena in Lyon. One is a woman of noble birth, but we’re not told her name. Instead, we’re told the name of one of her slaves, Blandina. Blandina suffers terribly in the arena, and the author tells us that she dies resembling Christ on the cross. That’s a paradigmatic insight into the way the Christian understanding of the crucifixion upends the social and gender norms that had prevailed in the Roman Empire. Blandina, a female slave, is compared to Christ when her mistress and the men in the arena are not.
As a martyr, the early Christians believed, Blandina wouldn’t have to wait for the Day of Judgment to enter the palace of heaven. Instead, this female slave would be escorted straight to the inner sanctum of the palace of God and be seated by God’s side ahead of everybody else.
That’s the radical potential that Christians see in suffering for those who are prepared to consecrate their suffering to Christ. The aftershocks of that endure to this day. They explain what is strange about Caravaggio’s painting. This is a radical reconfiguring of the meaning of suffering for humanity. “The last shall be first.”
Not a sentiment that would have occurred to an ancient Spartan or Roman.
Julius Caesar is said to have slaughtered a million Gauls and enslaved another million, and not only did he not feel bad about this, he regarded it as the measure of his greatness. Likewise, Leonidas of Sparta, who died at Thermopylae as portrayed in the film 300, was king in a city that depended on a vast population of slaves. He had no qualms about this. He thought it was the order of the world. The Spartans had annexed this neighboring city, turned the population into slaves, and bred them to be as placid and servile as possible. They would kill any of them who seemed too uppity.
To us, the Third Reich is the absolute embodiment of evil, perhaps in a way that Sparta isn’t. I think that is because the Third Reich stands in the context of a Christian civilization for whom contempt for the suffering of others is seen as an offense against our shared humanity. The Spartans didn’t have that context, and that may be why we judge them less harshly than we judge the Nazis.
The Christian view has had its critics, of course. Friedrich Nietzsche famously referred to it as contemptible, as “slave morality.”
He refers to the “blond beast” being gelded by Christianity. The idea that Christianity neutered the pagan virtues of heroism and strength and power, and indeed cruelty, was hugely influential on the Nazis. Fascism was a conscious attempt to roll back the centuries of Christian history and return to the primal ferocity and emphasis on glory and power that the fascists saw the Greeks and Romans embodying, while simultaneously embracing everything that was modern and new and gleaming – planes, tanks, jets, whatever. That fusion of the pre-Christian and the post-Christian enabled those who signed up to fascist ideals to commit the atrocities that they did.
But it’s important to acknowledge that Christians themselves have been capable of committing appalling atrocities. Christians worship a God who suffered horribly on an instrument of torture, but that has not prevented them from inflicting sufferings on others. That is the great paradox of Christian history.
Take for example the Inquisition’s persecution of the heretics we call “Cathars” in thirteenth-century France. The idea of denying people freedom of conscience strikes us moderns as monstrous and appalling. But the story is slightly more complicated, because the inquisitors make inordinate efforts to persuade the people to see the error of their ways. They don’t want to condemn the people they are investigating to the flames. To burn a heretic is a mark of failure.
There’s an interesting contrast to the atrocities that were committed in much the same region several centuries later in the wake of the French Revolution, when the revolutionary armies moved into the outer reaches of France. Because the French Revolution is consciously setting itself against Christianity, the sense that every human being is created in the image of God and has to be treated potentially as an image of Christ is gone. It’s the same in the twentieth century when the Communists in Russia and China launch their mass killing campaigns. They were wholly without such inhibitions because they lacked the framing that Christianity had provided. Even though they were driven by a Christian kind of motive – the desire to uplift the poor, the suffering, the weak, and to cast down the strong – the fact that the revolutionaries discarded doctrinal Christianity enabled them to act with a degree of brutality that even the Inquisition at its worst was reluctant to do.
Today the Inquisition and the Crusades are constantly held up as examples of the brutality of which Christianity is capable. But of course, the standards by which we condemn them are themselves Christian.
We started with artwork, now let’s turn to three figures from history who illustrate this Christian insight. You’ve already mentioned the first one.
Yes, Blandina, the second-century slave girl who died in the arena in Lyon. She always strikes me as such a fascinating figure right at the start of the Christian story – to her fellow believers, the nobility that her suffering brought her redeems her from her slavery and elevates her to the highest possible rank. That idea is so fundamental to Christian history, and it’s right there at the beginning.
And it then extends to those born into privilege who don’t suffer martyrdom, such as our next example, Elizabeth of Hungary.
So she is of royal birth, living in the early thirteenth century, about the same time as the Inquisition’s persecution of the Cathars. She’s motivated by the desire for a kind of identification with Christ that around the same time is also motivating both the Cathars and Saint Francis of Assisi. The yearning to identify with and emulate the sufferings of Christ is sometimes branded by the church as heresy, and on other occasions is saluted as the behavior of saints.
Like Francis, Elizabeth is canonized a saint after her death. Though born into wealth and power, she bears in mind that the first shall be last, and so she humbles herself. She works in a hospital, hugging lepers with their sores to her breast, mopping their brows. She feels that she is beckoned by the suffering Christ. That kind of behavior would’ve made no sense to anyone before the Christian period.
Elizabeth’s actions sound pathological, even insane. Yet she is very clearly, I think, a precursor of all kinds of movements that are current today. For example, she refuses to eat food that comes from her husband’s peasantry, that’s been extorted from them. If you want to put it that way, she will only eat food that has been ethically sourced.
You can see why, for the medieval authorities, this kind of approach would seem dangerous. It wasn’t just the safe and pious path that it may seem to be in hindsight. Others were executed for the same thing.
Our last example is in many ways very different, but shares Elizabeth’s name and royal heritage. The late Queen Elizabeth II didn’t give away all her wealth or serve in a hospital. But there’s something about her life that is explicable only in terms of Christianity, an embrace of – suffering may be the wrong word – but certainly self-abnegation.
It might sound ridiculous to say that the Queen, who was one of the richest people in the world, lived a life of suffering.
We’re deliberately being a bit ridiculous here.
Yet it’s not actually so far-fetched. If we take the twentieth-century existentialists at their word, one of the worst kinds of suffering is boredom. And in that sense, the Queen actually suffered quite a lot, because she led quite a boring life. And she absolutely did so as a Christian. For her, the coronation oaths she took were a sacrament.
Like a vow of religious life?
She’d been anointed by God and she felt wedded to her role. Every Christmas, she would broadcast a message in Britain. The older she got, the more overtly Christian that message became. I think she was one of the most impressive spokespeople for Christianity in contemporary Britain.
I can imagine all kinds of people snorting at the idea that monarchy is a kind of suffering. But perhaps, to a degree, it is. When she died, I think many people found themselves surprised by how moved they were by the rituals and ceremony of her obsequies. Britain is in some ways an aggressively secular society. But those two weeks between her death and her funeral enabled people in Britain and perhaps beyond to get a sense of the strangeness that the Queen herself was wedded to. And it was a Christian strangeness.
This telephone interview from January 31, 2023, has been edited for clarity and length.