Chapter XVI. From Paganism to Christianity


The tremendous issues of the change which had passed over the fortunes of the Christian religion after A. D. 313, the date of the Milan Edict, were probably foreseen by few at the time.

Indeed, the gradual progress of events had somewhat accustomed men's minds to the altered position of things. We will very briefly recount the principal steps which led up to the new platform upon which Christianity found itself in A. D. 323 and in the years immediately following, a platform from which it never had to recede. First, the abdication of Diocletian in A. D. 305, and the readjustment of the Imperial Government, put a stop to all active persecution throughout most of the Western provinces. Second, the Edict of Toleration issued by the dying Galerius in A. D. 311 gave a new aspect to the position of Christianity in the East; and, although its merciful provisions were temporarily set aside by Maximin Daia, persecution was generally looked on henceforth as a something absolutely alien to the universal policy of the Roman Empire. Third, the victorious campaign of Constantino under the banner of the cross, and the consequent union of the Western Empire under his scepter, followed by the Edict of Milan, formally gave the Christian a legal status throughout the Empire. The ten years of Imperial favor which followed the edict witnessed an enormous increase in the numbers of the hitherto persecuted sect. Fourth, the efforts of the Pagan party in the East to regain its lost ground were completely defeated by the overthrow and death of Licinius in A. D. 323 and the peaceable succession of the Emperor Constantino to the Eastern throne; the whole Roman world being thus united under the undisputed rule of a Christian Sovereign.

These great events had followed one another during the eighteen years which had elapsed since the abdication of Diocletian, and, although to all outward appearance the world was still Pagan, though "every city seemed still to repose under the tutelary gods of the ancient religion, the silent courts of the Pagan fanes were untrodden but by a few casual worshippers, the altars were without victims; thin wreaths of smoke rose where the air used to be clouded with the reek of hecatombs, the priesthood murmuring in bitter envy at the throng which passed by the porticoes of their temples towards the Christian Church."

As regards many of the great nobles of the Empire, those who were more closely associated with the Emperor generally adopted the religion of the Sovereign and of the Court; but for a lengthened period very many of the patrician houses, and not a few among the cultured classes, haughtily stood aloof from the religion which in so marvelous a way had stirred the hearts of the men and women of the Empire. In the writings of the Pagans of the last half of the fourth century, a strange silence is observable respecting the undreamed of progress of the sect—a curious reticence on all the circumstances attendant on the tremendous victory of Christianity which that century had witnessed. We search, but search in vain, for detailed mentions of what must have been uppermost in the hearts of these passionate lovers of the storied past of Rome in the well-known and serious writings of the period. The letters of Symmachus, the proud and wealthy patrician, in which the life of the nobles of Rome is so vividly and picturesquely depicted, are silent. So are the writings of Macrobius and the histories of Aurelius Victor and Eutropius, who do not even deign to mention '| an event so striking as the conversion of Constantino. This almost universal silence is, however, broken in the curious Latin translation of the dialogue of Asclepius put out about the middle of this fourth century. Here the increasing cult of Christian martyrs is bitterly inveighed against, and the writer dwells with mournful eloquence on the fate of the ancient land of Egypt, deprived of her immemorial deities. "Oh, Egypt! Egypt!" he cries "nought remains of thy beliefs but confused echoes and a few inscriptions which may bear witness to coming generations of thy ancient piety. The gods who once dwelt with thee have gone back again into Heaven."

The prevalent silence was again broken a little later by Rutilius Namatianus, a Gallic gentleman of high position, who very early in the fifth century filled distinguished ofiices at Rome, and became a senator. His words may fairly be taken as voicing the extreme dislike, even hatred, with which very many of the highest class viewed the rapid advance of Christianity. His undisguised opinions appear in a graceful little poem descriptive of a sea trip from Rome (Ostia probably) to South Gaul. He comes across a Jew—not a loved race by any means; but his great objection to the Jew is based upon the fact that Christianity sprang from a Jewish root— "radix stultitise" as he sorrowfully terms it. Sailing by the Isle of Capraria, at that time (circa A. D. 416) largely peopled— dishonored, as he terms it—with Christian monks, he writes, "squalet lucifugis insula plena viris." Very bitterly he inveighs against these people, the monks, who avoid, as he thinks, the light of day. Is there any sense, he asks, in living a wretched life simply for fear of becoming unhappy? A little later he meets with another company of Christian solitaries, among whom he finds a wealthy and well-born man, who has thrown up his duties as a citizen, who has forsaken friends, family and wife, in order to bury himself alive in the Sepulchers. The miserable man, so writes Rutilius, "dreams that Heaven is pleased with the sight of these unclean beings. They loved to torture themselves; they are more cruel even than the offended gods! I ask the question: has not this sect (the Christian) the secret of poisons more deadly than any possessed by Circe?—for Circe only brought about a change in the body; these people change the very soul." Rutilius detested and loathed monasticism; but his contemptuous scorn for it is derived from his intense hatred of Christianity. To him it is only a natural outcome of a religion which debased the soul.

Among the class of noble, wealthy Romans in the provinces as in Italy, but especially in the great metropolis, Paganism died very slowly. These haughty descendants of the ancient patrician houses, and those who in the provinces recruited their ranks, as well as the rhetorician, the panegyrist, the poet, the historian, viewed the strange triumph-march of the Christians, which began in real earnest in A. D. 313, the date of the Milan Edict, with a shuddering disdain; they watched with a sorrow which refused to be comforted the ever-growing neglect of all the stately immemorial rites and ceremonies of an historic Paganism; they saw with deep murmuring the contempt into which the ancient gods of Rome and the Empire had fallen. And in the room of those gods who, as the translator of the "Dialogue of Asclepius," above referred to has it, had winged their flight away in grief from earth to Heaven, men had substituted a strange unnatural faith in "the Crucified"—a faith which their wiser and more far-sighted ancestors had pronounced unlawful, had condemned as the "exitiabilis superstitio" of Tacitus, as the "superstitio prava et immodica" of Pliny; a "superstitio" they had never deigned, however, to examine.



But for them the end was soon to come, when their beliefs were to be swept away for ever in the wild torrent of barbarian invasion, while the Ark of the Church, which they hated and despised, floated safe and unharmed on the awful flood. The Pagan cult they loved and admired is only a memory surviving among a handful of curious scholars. The Church, though fifteen hundred more changing and changeful years have since come and gone, is with us still, the greatest and most enduring power in the world.

But what of the rank and file of the population of the Empire? What of the masses of the people? What of the many millions who were not of senatorial rank, who possessed no palaces in the fashionable quarters of Rome, or Carthage, or Antioch, or Milan, or Lyons, who owned no villas in the hills round Rome or on the shores of the charmed Italian and Sicilian seas—who were neither rhetoricians nor poets, philosophers nor historians—the millions who could not be described as cultured—what of all these? How from the year 313 onward were these affected towards Christianity?

It will be remembered how again and again in the story of Christianity from the year 64, and even earlier, in countless centers of population, a fierce persecution frequently arose owing to hostile denunciations by the populace. Very little, apparently, was needed at all times to excite them against a sect which from various reasons was indubitably disliked by the masses. Now it was the Jews who stirred up the popular enmity; now it was the jealous priests of the Pagan cult; not unfrequently it was the anger of traders who were injured by the teaching and practice of Christianity. One or other of these classes of a city population would often stir up their fellow citizens, who were only too ready to force the somewhat reluctant magistrates to harass and persecute the sect.

But after the Edict of Milan in A. D. 313, probably at a somewhat earlier date in the Western provinces of the Empire, a different spirit evidently prevailed. The edicts favorable to Christianity seem to have been quietly received, even approved, and in many places positively welcomed; and vast and ever-increasing numbers of the population hitherto Pagan joined the Christian communities. Here and there, it is true, we hear of a popular demonstration against the Christians, such as took place in Alexandria, but such temporary outbreaks were put down without difficulty. Something had evidently happened to bring about this great change in popular opinion.

The conversion of Constantine and the Edict of Milan have been usually alleged as the causes of the strange and rapid conversion of "the masses" of the Empire to the religion of the Crucified. But without detracting from the importance of these events, we would urge that other and very different causes were at work which really brought about this wonderful and swift change in the hearts of the people.

A study of certain Christian writers and workers in the second half of the fourth century suggests that a deep impression was made upon the masses, i.e. the people generally of the Roman Empire, by the sufferings and conduct of the Confessors in the great Diocletian persecution. The imagery adopted by Prudentius, the Spanish poet of the second half of the fourth century, would have had absolutely no meaning did it not represent a popular feeling which must certainly have come into existence before the middle of the fourth century. Thus in the Peri-Stephandos, Christ is spoken of as sanctifying a great city like Saragossa (Caesar Augusta); whole cities are described as finding shelter and comfort in the day of the great Assize under the shadow of the strong protection of some martyr or martyrs who had been specially honored by the dwellers therein.

Again, much of the long later life of the once renowned and popular Saint PauHnus of Nola is taken up with the question of "pilgrimages." He tells us of early impressions stamped on his childish mind by the sight of the crowds of pilgrims to the humble shrine of S. Felix of Nola; and as Paulinus was born A. D. 353, Christianity must have permeated the masses before the middle of the century to have brought such a number of devotees to a humble and little-known shrine during his childhood. Now Nola was but a comparatively humble instance of many other more famous Martyr-shrines. Within fifty years after the promulgation of the Milan Edict, it would seem as though Christianity had taken by storm the hearts of the vast majority of the masses of the people.

This impression is confirmed by the records of the well-known and elaborate works carried out by Pope Damasus during his episcopate at Rome A. D. 366-384. When Damasus began his memorable pontificate little more than half-a-century had elapsed since the Peace of the Church had been proclaimed. The works of restoration and renovation would have been meaningless had they not been designed for the devout visits of a vast number of Christian pilgrims from distant countries to the many sacred tombs of confessors and martyrs for the Faith who had suffered at Rome. It is obvious that the passion for pilgrimage to martyr-shrines had already, before the period of his Episcopate, permeated the people not only in Rome but also in far distant provinces.

Surely then we are not in error when we assert our belief that Christianity very early in the fourth century, certainly from the date of the Edict of Milan, A. D. 313, had gained the key to the hearts of the people. From signs no candid student can safely neglect or pass over, it seems clear that the events connected with the last great persecution largely contributed to this result. Its extent, the extreme severity of its edicts, the terrible thoroughness with which these edicts were carried out, the numbers, the constancy and brave patience of the confessors, although in the Western Provinces of the Empire it only lasted a little over two years, must have made an extraordinary impression on the people. Its progress was made easy—when once the supreme Government of the Empire ceased to be hostile to and even looked with favor upon the long persecuted religion, when once the unlawfullness of being a Christian was done away with by Imperial edicts, formally sanctioning the profession of the Christian cult. But no mere favor and patronage of the Emperor and the Court could ever have won for Christianity that widespread acceptance among the people which was noticeable even before the first half of the fourth century had run its course. Something more was needed; that something the persecution of Diocletian and the conduct of the sufferers in the persecution in large measure provided.

To the nature of this revulsion of feeling witness is borne by the writings and the records left by some prominent Christians in the latter half of the fourth century. To these we shall now refer in detail.

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