The ancient world took it for granted that different peoples organized themselves in the ways that were best for them. Guys like Herodotus might’ve admired the Egyptians, by and large, but he’d never suggest that Egyptian society had anything to teach the Greeks. Or vice versa, which is why Greeks could actually rule Egypt for centuries without being “Egyptianized” for any but the grossest propaganda purposes. Even the one pharaonic custom they did adopt, royal incest, was largely to keep the dynasty Greek.
Ruling the different peoples according to their customs was the cornerstone of Roman imperial law, too, which is why the pax romana was so successful for so long. The Jews are a good example. The Romans ruled them through client kings for as long as it was politically feasible. Pontius Pilate wasn’t being cowardly when he washed his hands of Jesus; he was playing imperial politics. He clearly had the power to execute Jesus on his own authority, but doing so would’ve put him at odds with traditional imperial legal practice.
Indeed, the Christians screwed up Roman imperial jurisprudence in two major ways. The first was their refusal to sacrifice to the Cult of the Divine Augustus. That alone probably wouldn’t have been so bad — it could’ve been worked out, or quietly dropped, by governors on the spot — if it weren’t for the second thing: Their refusal to be subject to the laws of their ethnic group.
The Romans didn’t care if you were an Isis-worshiping Gaul, any more than they’d care if you were an Egyptian who worshiped Cernunnos. They’d try the Gaul as a Gaul, and the Egyptian as an Egyptian. And, of course, they’d try a Roman as a Roman, which is the only reason Paul lived long enough to write all those epistles — though ethnically a Jew, he was a Roman citizen, entitled to a hearing in front of a Roman magistrate (in this case, Seneca’s brother). But as a Christian, Paul emphatically renounced his Roman citizenship, which threw their entire system of justice out of whack. To them, “renouncing” your Roman citizenship would be like an African “renouncing” his black skin — impossible, bizarre, unthinkable.
The important thing to realize is that the Roman system, for all its flaws, worked in practice. It took a revolution in human relations to undermine it. There is, in short, nothing special about our current belief in universal legal principles. In fact, it’s just that — a belief, subject to modification at any time, for any reason. “Judging each man by his group’s standards” is one of only two ways to achieve lasting piece in a multi-ethnic society. You know what the other one is….Loading Likes...