It makes little real sense to speak of “the end of the Roman Empire” as though that enormous social structure suddenly came undone or ceased to exist. In forms both powerful and merely vestigial, it continued to provide the framework of international society throughout Europe for hundreds of years. That said, starting with the reign of Constantine, the conflict between the old pagan rule and the new Christian might would slowly erode the Empire’s potency.
The first persecutions launched against the Christians by Rome’s emperors were relatively small affairs, but none the saner for that. It must seem strange that a city as abundant in sects and cult objects as imperial Rome should have persecuted anyone for holding unorthodox beliefs—there was, one might have thought, more than enough superstition for everyone—but in imperial times that was not how the ruling and priestly classes saw the matter, and for two reasons.
One was that the Christians refused to pay divine honors to the emperor. They would not pray or sacrifice to him as a god. Even a token participation in Roman religious rituals would probably have satisfied the authorities. But to refuse them altogether was an act of defiance. It was resented as a crass form of lèse-majesté. Christians seemed bound together by ties of common belief and worship which had nothing to do with the ordinary relationships between Romans and their gods. Those relationships underwrote the stability of the Roman state. The Christians seemed more loyal to their secret society, which could only mean that they were disloyal to Rome.
The second, related reason was that, after a period of relative indifference, Christianity began to attract hostile and fantastically inflated rumors about the numbers, conduct, and beliefs of its devotees, and the dangers they might pose to an orderly society. They were becoming a more visible sect, which—thanks to its slowly growing popularity among the common folk of the Roman Empire in the third century C.E.—was attracting the kind of hatred that success breeds. Christians had arrived only recently, boasted one of them, Tertullian, “and we have filled everything of yours—cities, islands, forts, towns … palace, Senate, Forum. We have left you only the temples.” This was an extreme exaggeration. But nearly everything that was said about Christianity in its earliest years was an exaggeration, and nothing more so than the popular notions among pagans of what Christians actually believed and hoped for.
Given the success of Christianity in the coming years, given that this embryonic cult would soon become an all-dominating and world-embracing religion that drove the pagan gods from their sanctuaries and niches, one might have expected a surge of opposition to it right from the start; actually, there was little. If no threat was presumed, Romans tended to be quite tolerant of minority religions, even when the “minority” was large. The Emperor Augustus, for instance, knew that a large tract of Rome beyond the Tiber was owned and inhabited by Jews. Most of these Jews were Roman freedmen, who had been brought to the city as prisoners-of-war and then manumitted by their owners. They did not worship the Roman gods, or perform obeisances at Roman shrines. But because they caused no trouble either in doctrine or in action, Augustus saw that no pressure was put on their synagogues; no Jew was prevented from meeting with his or her brethren for the exposition of the Law—“On the contrary, he showed such reverence for our traditions that he and almost all his family enriched our Temple with expensive dedications. He gave orders for regular sacrifices of holocausts to be made daily in perpetuity at his own expense, as an offering to the Most High God. These sacrifices continue to this day, and will continue always, as a proof of his truly imperial character.”1
Christians, few but growing in number, led little-noticed lives in the forest of sects and cults that the decay of “official” Roman religion produced; as a religion, Christianity seemed hardly worth contesting. To most Romans who thought at all about the matter it would have seemed of little consequence, and the idea that the civilized world would before long date its events from the lifetime of a carpenter’s son from Galilee would have seemed merely ludicrous.
There is a passing reference in Suetonius’s account of Claudius to disturbances caused by Jews in Rome “at the instigation of Chrestus,” but it is not at all clear if Chrestus was the same person as Christ. No pagan writer even bothered to attack the ideas of the Christians until 178 C.E. (He was a Neoplatonist named Celsus, and his writings are lost; we only know that he wrote them because a Christian apologist, the Church father Origen, attacked him for them.)
Unrestrained calumnies were let fly against the Christians, “a rabble of unholy conspirators,” given to sharing “barbarous foods … for the sake of sacrilege,” according to the converted Christian writer Minucius Felix. The result of the mere presence, let alone the growth, of Christianity (according to those Romans who disapproved of it) had been general moral decay in the Empire and, everywhere, “a kind of religion of lust.” Christians were accused of every sort of perversion and impropriety, including ritually murdering children and eating their flesh—a fantasy which must have arisen from Christ’s Eucharistic instructions to his disciples, to eat his body (the bread) and drink his blood (the wine), and to “do this in memory of me.” This form of banqueting was “notorious; everywhere, all talk of it.” The Christians wanted to bring the end of the earth, moon, and stars with fire, and be “reborn after death from the cinders and the ashes.” In sum, the apocalyptic nonsense that anti-Semitism would soon be spouting against Jews was being marshaled by some Romans to incite and justify the persecution of Christians.
Whence such virulence? A reasonable person might have had his reservations about Christian behavior and found reasons to disagree with, even dislike it. But the idea that Christianity wanted to bring about the destruction of the world must seem exotic, or at least a tad far-fetched, to those who think of it as a benign and gentle religion. Others destroy; Christians temper, comfort, and forgive. But it could very well not have seemed so to a Roman in the first century C.E., when confronted by the rhetoric not only of the sect’s faithful, but of its founder, the aggressive Galilean Jesus Christ.
Early Christians were not milky-mild or forgiving at all. We know this because we know what they believed, which was what Christ had told them to believe. At the back of all Christian minds lay his injunction to intolerant militancy: “I come not to bring peace, but a sword.” The New Testament’s record of early Christian belief is contained in the Acts and the Epistles. They are saturated with apocalyptic rhetoric; some of it, no doubt, garbled and touched up—the New Testament was put together a long time after Christ’s death—but without reasonable doubt a fair epitome of what Christ, and the early Christians, believed and said. And (no less important) of what the Romans thought they were saying.
The principal content of these beliefs was that the world was coming to an end. Saint Peter had no doubt about this. “The end of all things is at hand,” he announced. “The time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God.” This would happen at any moment, because these were “the last days”—a phrase which would be used and reused in Christian eschatology for the next two thousand years. Saint Paul was of a similar view, eagerly awaiting the day “when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall be punished with everlasting destruction.…”
Jesus’ own words on these terrible events to come are recorded in the Gospel of Matthew:
For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows.… Ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake.… I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.
Christians did not believe that such prophecies, promises, and threats were in any way metaphorical. They were truthful in essence, and soon would be in fact as well: not in the distant future, but imminently, within this generation. Rome was doomed to be destroyed in a few years, a few decades at the most. The New Testament had not been written yet, but such beliefs were preached, described, made part of the essential public lore of the new religion and its adherents. To them, it made perfect sense, because it was Revealed Truth. But it also made sense to the Roman authorities, sense of a different kind. It meant that the Galileans wanted this promised destruction—as no doubt many of them, being fanatics, did. The radical who dreams of bringing a whole society crashing down on the heads of its inhabitants, who fantasizes about the fiery end of the social order, would become a familiar figure—hero to some, nightmare to others—throughout the twentieth century: the anarchist with the bomb, the Falangist general crying,“Viva la muerte,” the Arab teenager blowing himself and a Jewish school bus to a bloody, smoking pulp for the sake of “martyrdom.” There seems to be little room for doubt that a civilized, law-loving Roman might have believed what the Jesus freaks said about the future of history and their mission within it, and concluded that the best thing to do with this hostile though marginal sect was to wipe it out before it spread any further. Of course, the end of the world did not come—a relief to sensible people, though no doubt a disappointment to some loonies. But to threaten it, which was what Rome thought Christians were doing, was—how to put it?—a deeply antisocial act. It made the thought that Christians were motivated by “hatred of the human race” seem quite plausible.
Undoubtedly, the most crazed and sadistic attack on Christians by any Roman emperor was the one launched after the Great Fire in Rome in 64 C.E., when Nero needed a scapegoat for the fire. According to the historian Tacitus, the Christians were already “hated for their abominations” in Judaea. The Jews, particularly the very Orthodox ones, would have liked nothing better than to see them disposed of—to gratify their apparent longing for holy martyrdom. Thus they welcomed their persecution by Nero, even though the need for it did not, according to Tacitus, convince the Romans themselves. They thought it freakish:
Nero provided his Gardens for the spectacle, and exhibited displays in the Circus, at which he mingled with the crowd—or stood in a chariot, dressed as a charioteer. Despite their guilt as Christians, and the ruthless punishment it deserved, the victims were pitied. For it was felt that they were being sacrificed to one man’s brutality rather than to the national interest.
There was no sudden transition between Nero’s obsessions and the victory of the Christians—how could there have been?—and yet, if we look back on it, it is surely possible to see in the violence of Nero’s attack on the little sect a foretaste of what was to come two and a half centuries later. The epochal event which divided the history of the Roman Empire was a battle won just outside Rome, and fought in 312: the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, which spanned the Tiber.
This battle marked—though of course no one realized it at the time—the end of the old Roman imperial system and the beginning of the Byzantine Empire. It was predicted by a line in Homer cited, with some relish, by the Roman gossip-monger and historian Suetonius when writing of the first-century Emperor Domitian: “Too many rulers are a dangerous thing.”
So indeed they proved to be.
Under Diocletian, the unified Roman Empire had split and assumed a new shape: at the dawn of the fourth century, it consisted of an Eastern and a Western empire, ruled by the tetrarchs—not one but two senior emperors, each known by the honorific “Augustus” and supported by his own “Caesar” or junior emperor, making four rulers in all.
The best-known depiction of this odd system was created by an unknown artist in Constantinople, looted by crusaders in 1204, and brought to Venice, where it was built into the façade of Saint Mark’s Basilica. It depicts two pairs of tetrarchs, the Augustus and the Caesar of East and West respectively, embracing one another. They are solid, heavy, thick-necked, and shown grasping their swords with their free hands. It is an image of firm—one might say, implacable—loyalty, though there is no indication of their names.
In the spring of 305, Diocletian, the Augustus of the Eastern Empire, as Maximianus was of the Western, had formally abdicated. He now retired to his gigantic palace, whose ruins still stand at Split, formerly Spalato, on the Dalmatian coast. He was succeeded as Augustus of the East by his fiercely anti-Christian colleague Galerius, who had moved up from his previous post as Caesar of the East (and was succeeded in that role by his nephew, Maximinus Daia). Similarly, Maximianus abdicated as the Empire’s Western Augustus and was replaced by Constantius Chlorus, up to then the Caesar of the West.
What threw this ponderous imperial game of musical chairs into chaos was that in 306 the barbarian border tribe of the Picts, ancestors of the modern lowland Scots, tried to invade Roman Britain. Constantius Chlorus would not put up with such effrontery and sailed for Britain with an army and his warrior son Constantine, determined to put the Picts down. He managed to do so; but then Constantius himself died, of unknown causes, at York in the summer of 306. This left his heir, the ambitious young Constantine, as imperial ruler of Britain, Gaul, and Spain, with the full rank and title of Augustus; but Galerius, the reigning Augustus of the East, did not want the boy to succeed him immediately. Constantine wrote to him asking to be ratified as the Augustus. Galerius would only give him the second rank, that of Caesar. Constantine accepted this, no doubt reluctantly, though with as much grace as he could muster.
But in Rome, neither the army nor the majority of the people would go along with that arrangement. For reasons too involved to go into here, stemming from their resentment at the prospect of forced tax levies, they wanted Maxentius, the son of Maximianus, as Caesar. And once Maxentius was installed, he asked his father to come back from retirement and become, once again, the Augustus. Galerius, who wanted the next Augustus to be a military strongman (but not as strong as himself) named Severus, objected to this proposal, and ordered his army to attack Maxentius. They lost; Severus’ troops mutinied and killed their leader; and this left Maxentius and his legions in command of Rome. In retrospect, though of course it would hardly have seemed so at the time, the most important thing about Maxentius’ power over Rome and its empire was, like that of Diocletian before him, his implacable dislike of the small and still rather marginal sect of the Christians.
Constantine launched himself across the Alps from Gaul, at the head of an expeditionary force numbering some forty thousand troops, perhaps a quarter of his whole army, in the spring of 312. His target was a heavily fortified Rome, where Maxentius had dug in. The cities of northern Italy offered little resistance. Some of them, notably Milan, effusively welcomed Constantine, because Maxentius’ occupation of Rome had deprived them of much of their importance and power. As Constantine advanced southward, it became ever clearer that Maxentius was preparing for a siege. But when Constantine’s force had come almost within striking distance of Rome, the Romans themselves lost confidence in their ability to resist a long siege; rumor and oracles persuaded them that Constantine was invincible, and so Maxentius realized that he would have to come out and fight, on the north side of the Tiber. The bridges across the river to Rome had all been destroyed, but Maxentius had a new, temporary one created from boats and pontoons where the more solid Milvian Bridge had stood. Across this structure, anchored against the flow of the Tiber, Maxentius and his army marched forth to confront Constantine on October 28, 312.
The result was a disaster, a rout.
In years to come, Constantine gave his version of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge and swore, under oath, that God had granted him a miraculous victory preceded by signs and omens. As he was leading his army south toward Rome, he claimed, he and every man under his command had seen a cross of light shining in the sky, with the words “In hoc signo vinces,” “In this sign, conquer.” That night, when Constantine was asleep in his tent, Christ appeared to him in a dream, holding that unfamiliar emblem of the cross, and directed him to have new standards made for his army in its form.
What could this really have meant to him? In the early fourth century, most people, Constantine included, had no idea of the symbolism of a cross. He was not a Christian, not yet, but there were some Christians among his advisers, such as Ossius, bishop of Córdoba, and they all concurred in pointing out that the cross was the emblem of the greatest of all gods, and that if Constantine adopted it he could not be defeated. Well, Constantine seems to have thought, try anything once. The pagan standards were flung away, on went the crosses, and soon Maxentius’ troops were on the run, in chaos and confusion. The boat bridge disintegrated, and Maxentius himself is said to have drowned under the weight of his armor while trying to get back across the Tiber.
Just before battle was joined, Constantine declared for Christianity. After the Milvian victory in 312, state persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire—torture, murder, confiscation of goods and property—effectively ceased. It was removed from state policy. There would be no more libelous assertions about the new sect, such as had infested the policies of Diocletian, who regarded the cult as treasonous and diabolical and was not above torturing any suspected Christians on unfounded charges of arson, burning them alive, demolishing their chapels.
Constantine ordered that property and wealth confiscated from Christians under Diocletian’s mandate should be given back. But it is far too easy, in Constantine’s case, to ascribe to pure religious faith what was more like a continuous exercise in realism, carried out by a hardheaded soldier with a polytheistic background. Certainly, he must have ascribed his victory over Maxentius, at least in part, to the intervention of some powerful god. It is always wise, as well as easy, for a winner to declare that God was on his side. But pagan symbols continued to appear on his coinage for twenty years after the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Constantine was not even baptized a Christian until he was dying, a quarter-century later, in 337. To say that he unambiguously “converted” to a new faith, a new spiritual discipline, is to invoke a myth—however useful this myth became to Christian propaganda, as it assuredly did. What did it mean, to say that Constantine was the first Christian emperor? Not, perhaps, as much as later Christians made out. At this distance, and across such vast cultural differences as those between his time and ours, it is hardly possible to know. Nevertheless, it is clear that there was a marked change in the religious landscape. The recognition of a new tolerance was inscribed in the so-calledEdict of Milan, 313, which emerged from a wish of the now dying Galerius that Christians might be allowed to “again rebuild the houses in which they used to meet.” (Christian religious ceremonies were generally not held in churches, but in tituli or houses of the faithful—“meeting houses” exactly describes them. Since there were relatively few churches yet dedicated as such, those shrines and meeting places were commonly part of tituli; so this law was also an affirmation of personal privacy of worship.Tituli were commonly named after the owners of the private property, as in Titulus Ceciliae or Titulus Anastasiae, or the Titulus Byzantii, named after the Roman Senator Byzantius, who gave his house to the Christians as a place of worship. By the end of the fourth century, about twenty-five of these were known in Rome. There may have been more, but they represented in any case a tiny presence of Christians among the forty-four thousand insulae or apartment blocks and more than a million inhabitants Rome had in Constantine’s time.)
So, after his victory at the Milvian Bridge, Constantine and his co-emperor Licinius met at Milan and issued a declaration that Christians from now on must have complete religious freedom, that they should no longer suffer confiscations, and, as Galerius wished, that their houses of worship, if taken from them, must be restored. This had large cultural as well as religious consequences, because it opened a space in which specifically Christian iconography and symbolic detail could flourish and develop, moving away from, though in many ways building on, Roman prototypes. A vivid example of this process is the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus (d. 359), one of the first Roman patricians to embrace Christianity. In form, it is a pagan sarcophagus. But on its sides, carved in deep relief, are scenes of such biblical events as the sacrifice of Isaac, the trial of Christ before Pilate, and Adam and Eve’s shame at their nakedness, replacing such familiar sarcophagus images as gods, goddesses, and battle scenes.
At the very least, Constantine knew he owed Christianity a great deal, since the new god on the cross had clearly overseen his utter defeat of Maxentius and placed him on the imperial throne. He also knew that debts have to be paid, especially when owed to such powerful gods; henceforth, the Christian Church would receive massive underwriting from the Roman state.
First, Constantine wrote to Maximinus Daia, the ruler of the Eastern Empire, pointing out that since Maxentius was dead, and the Roman Senate had now recognized him as the senior member of the imperial college, he had the absolute authority to order Maximinus, his junior, to cease from any and all persecution of Christians within the East, whether by tax, violence, confiscation, or (God forbid!) martyrdom. Whatever had been taken from them must be given back. They must not be molested in or out of their places of worship.
Constantine had all officials appointed by Maxentius purged, and replaced by Christian-friendly ones. And in a decision whose consequences would echo down the centuries—granting any cultist quack and televangelist in modern America, for instance, openings to huge immunities and profits—he exempted the churches from tax.
Shrewdly, he imposed no penalties on those among his subjects (and there were many, at first) who wanted to continue worshipping the older gods. One does not change the religious practices and loyalties of a whole empire merely by issuing an edict. Instead, he gave Christianity the status of the most favored religion, then let social pressures take their course.
One spectacular sign of the new order was the opening to the young church of Constantine’s imperial coffers. This happened most evidently in Rome, where its results could be seen by the largest number of people. What did most-favored status mean unless the emperor disbursed as much on the temples of the new religion as his predecessors had on the old? With Christians among Constantine’s advisers as early as 313, the Church was turning into a major political force already, and by acquiring new landholdings, it became an important economic one as well. Constantine turned much of the revenues from Roman colonies in North Africa, Greece, Syria, and Egypt toward underwriting and embellishing the new Christian foundations, perhaps four thousand gold solidi a year, the approximate equivalent in today’s currency of twenty-five to thirty million dollars.
With such funds it was possible to build actual churches, not merely to convert private houses to places of worship.
On the east side of the Caelian Hill, by the Aurelian Wall, was a site formerly belonging to an eques or knight named Plautius Lateranus; Constantine had acquired it and was determined to build a magnificent church on it, one which would hold two thousand worshippers, as an ex-voto to thank Christ for his victory over Maxentius. (Plautius Lateranus had been unwise enough to befriend Constantine’s defeated rival Maxentius, and it must have gratified the emperor to demolish the barracks of his horse guards, who had apparently supported him against Constantine.) It was on the edge of the city, though just inside its walls, and this position meant that Constantine did not have to embark on demolitions that would offend the still-pagan elite, whose shrines to traditional gods were crowded in the center of Rome.
This elite continued to matter a great deal in the fourth and on into the fifth century. Christian writers were given to boast that they and their coreligionists were taking over, but nothing is so simple. In the fourth century, Christian buildings were certainly being constructed, but it took centuries for the Pantheon to be rededicated as a Christian church by Pope Boniface IV, in 609, and more than two hundred years went by before the next Roman temple, that of Fortuna Virilis, was Christianized. Why? It is not certain, but pious Christians may have imagined that these buildings were contaminated by a residue of evil spirits. Certainly that was what people believed about the Colosseum. Meanwhile, pagan monuments were being repaired or even newly built—fora, streets, aqueducts, shrines, and even temples. Indeed, to its most sophisticated residents the culture paganism stood for—learned, aesthetically rich, and well embedded—was the only one worth having.
The siting of the Basilica Constantiniana, or San Giovanni in Laterano (as it came to be known, in recognition of the site’s original owner), was of both symbolic and political importance, not only because it was the first great Christian church in Rome but also because it declared that the Christians had no ambition to obliterate the more ancient Roman order: coexistence was the watchword between Constantine and the old aristocratic families. San Giovanni in Laterano was and remains the cathedral of Rome (not, be it noted, Saint Peter’s, despite what so many tourists think). It is the mother church of all Christendom, and its role is stated in the inscriptions cut not once but twice on its façade: “Omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput,” “The mother and head of allchurches of the city and of the world.”
It set the archetypal form for Christian churches in the West by adapting, with minimal alterations, a Roman architectural form: the “basilican” plan, so called after the Greek term meaning “royal house”: a long rectangular nave, a public space with entrance and apse on the opposite short sides. Side aisles, framed out from the body of the nave, provided space for ambulatories and chapels. This had been adapted from pagan Roman models (the first basilica in Rome had been built by Marcus Porcius Cato back in republican times, in 184 B.C.E.). It served the same type of ceremonies: lines of acolytes, stately processions toward a designated focus, such as are involved in the sacraments of Holy Communion and Confession. The basilican plan lends itself to a clear and strict separation of the celebrant (the priest) from his communicants, as the centralized plan of the Greek rite does not. But the basilican Christian plan was open to a wide variety of form: it could have several naves (some had as many as nine of these aisles, separated by rows of columns). Rectangular, axial basilicas of this kind were less costly to build than the centrally planned ones, roofed with masonry domes, favored in the East, because they did not require the elaborate curved shuttering needed to construct arches and domes.
It was, by the standards of its time (or any time), an enormous building, with a four-aisled nave ninety-eight meters long and some fifty-six wide. Its main columns were of red granite, and its secondary-aisle columns were recycled from ancient buildings and were of green marble. Apart from the enormous cost of construction, Constantine donated enough sheet gold—all looted long since—to decorate the apse.
This was not Constantine’s only ecclesiastical venture in Rome, of course. He endowed what became a private chapel for the devotions of his mother, Helena (250–330), Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, within the Sessorian Palace. In about 326, the future Saint Helena made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, from which she brought back shiploads of relics, including some tubs of soil from Calvary, and (a considerable engineering feat, if true) the stairs which Christ was believed to have climbed in the palace of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem.
Some early Christian churches in Rome are almost bewildering palimpsests. A case in point is the Basilica of San Clemente, less than half a mile from the Colosseum. Its existence began in the first century C.E., when it was raised on the foundations of a building—perhaps a warehouse, perhaps an apartment complex—burned out in the Great Fire of 64 C.E. and owned by a consul named Titus Flavius Clemens, a great-nephew of the Emperor Vespasian. According to the Roman chroniclers Dio Cassius and Suetonius, Clemens was executed in 95 C.E. on charges of impiety connected with “godlessness” and Judaism, brought by the Emperor Domitian. Whether this indicated some connection with Christianity is a matter of debate; the pious like to believe it was. What is fairly certain, however, is that by the late second or early third century the dark, dank, cavelike space within the former insula had become a Mithraic temple, which was abandoned when, in the fourth century, Mithraism—imported to Rome largely by legions returning from Asia Minor after the campaigns of Pompey2—was outlawed by the now victorious Christians.
Frustratingly little, and from documentary sources almost nothing, is known about this religion. It was a mystery cult that had managed to keep most of its secrets. Mithras, or Mithra, was a god hero who embodied light and truth. His acolytes knew him as, among other honorifics, “lord of the wide pastures,” and his central, mythic action was the capture and killing of a wild bull, which he dragged to a cave and then slaughtered. From its blood sprang life and grain. The sacrificing god was known as Mithras Tauroctonos, Mithras the Bull Slayer. The killing of the bull was therefore a highly generative act, and it may be that its memory is preserved, in a much-mutated form, down to the present day in the Spanish cult of the bullfight. This story may descend from the Greek myth of Perseus killing the Gorgon Medusa, and may have originated with King Mithridates VI of Pontus, who was named for Mithras but claimed descent from Perseus.
Mithraism never claimed a mass collective audience such as Christianity acquired. It had no need of huge basilicas—its cavelike gathering places were usually no more than sixty by twenty-five feet. Moreover, the congregation it did have was deliberately restricted. Mithraism was a masculine warrior-cult from which women were strictly excluded. Mithraea (the term for its meeting places) have been found in Rome, about a dozen in all, the largest being the Mithraeum Thermarum Antonianarum, underneath theBaths of Caracalla. The remains of others exist in Ostia, a reminder of how common Mithraic worship was in ports, among sailors and travelers.
There were similarities between the cults of Mithras and of Jesus, but they generally turn out to be superficial, and there is little support for the once-common view that Christianity developed out of Mithraism. Certainly Mithraism was more like Christianity than any of the other Eastern mystery cults that found adepts in Rome. But the two were also very dissimilar. Christianity wanted to spread; one of its main strengths was among women, and the idea of excluding half the human race from the faith would have been incomprehensible to the early Church, whatever its suspicions of the female sex.
Above the lowest, Mithraic floor of the titulus of Clemens (or Clemente, as his name is given in Italian) is another level, dating from the late fourth century and clearly associated with Christian worship. Over the centuries, it was adorned with a series of frescoes and mosaics, of which the most beautiful is a depiction of the Tree of Life in its apse—Christ crucified, with white doves roosting on the arms of his cross, and writhing spirals issuing from the base of the tree to fill the gold semicircle of the background. Of all the early Christian monuments of Rome, this twelfth-century mosaic is one of the most decorative and satisfying.
Various legends cling to the church. One is that after Saint Clement, third successor to Saint Peter as bishop of Rome, was flung into the Black Sea in 98 C.E. by the impious Romans with an anchor tied to his neck, his body was recovered by two Slavic saints, Cyril (826–69) and Methodius (815–85), brought to Rome, and buried in the church that bears his name. Another is recorded in a fresco in the nave. It tells how a Roman husband, peeved at his wife’s constant attendance at Mass, referred to the clergy of San Clemente’s as fili dele pute, “sons of whores.” Not only is this a surprising inscription to be found anywhere in a church; it is said to be the earliest known writing in vernacular Italian.
Constantine had (why, it is uncertain) a particular devotion to an early Christian martyr named Saint Lawrence (San Lorenzo). This was the deacon who, in the third century, was supposedly roasted to death on a gridiron. (The pious story that he defied his pagan tormentors by exclaiming, after a few minutes had brought him to medium-rare, “Turn me over, I am done on this side,” is no doubt apocryphal.) Constantine had Lawrence’s grave identified (at least at a guess), and then covered with a handsome silver grating, glorifying the original grill. Then he raised a basilica major, complete with inlaid Cosmatesque decoration, to mark the spot.
In a move to expiate the fierce injustices of pagan persecution, he underwrote various martyrs’ shrines, of which the most important in terms of its cult power was the Church of the Apostle Peter in the Vatican. There had been a long-standing cult concerning the remains of Saint Peter, martyred in Rome during the persecutions of Nero. There is no proof that the bones in whose honor Constantine had this basilica constructed actually belonged to that apostle, to whom Jesus allegedly entrusted his newborn church. (“Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam.”) The fact that successive rebuildings of Saint Peter’s, culminating in the stupendous pile marveled at by today’s faithful, are believed to stand above the saint’s actual bones proves nothing; the issue, as one Christian historian tactfully put it, is “clouded by confessional loyalties.”
Another main recipient of Constantine’s civic largesse was Palestine—in particular, the city of Jerusalem. His mother, Helena, like many another woman of humble origins who comes into great wealth and power, was unrestrained in her largesse; she founded and had built the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, dedicated to Mary, mother of Christ, and another church, on the Mount of Olives, to mark the point of her son’s ascent into Heaven. But the grandest construction was Constantine’s own, designed to mark the special relationship between the emperor and God. On what was believed to be the site of the crucifixion, overlapping onto Christ’s tomb, the emperor ordained the construction of a magnificent basilica. This entailed the destruction of a Roman shrine to Venus, and in the course of the work the excavators found a chamber containing not a body (one would certainly not have wanted to find a body, given the dogma of the Resurrection—“He is not here, for he is risen,” said the angel) but a quantity of wood, which (of course) could only be the wood of the True Cross on which the Son of Man had expired. Splinters of this timber would fill the Christian world’s reliquaries in centuries to come. Those inclined to believe in such things also identified a small stone room, hardly more than a hole, abutting what was rebuilt as an ambulatory, as being the prison in which Christ had been mewed up before his crucifixion.
These links between the New Testament account of Christ’s passion and death and the discoverable fabric of the excavated building were tenuous, but they did not deter Constantine’s representatives from saying with certainty that the site of the Holy Sepulchre had been found. The work of expanding and ennobling it began almost at once, on Constantine’s orders. All who saw it agreed with Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea (c. 260–340), Constantine’s chief admirer and interpreter, in finding the Church of the Holy Sepulchre a building beyond compare, encased in marble and with a coffered ceiling gilded from end to end. Moreover, it contained, in a small side chapel, what was believed to be the actual place where Jesus himself had expired on the cross—the Rock of Calvary. In its original form, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, when it was formally dedicated in 336 on the thirtieth anniversary of Constantine’s coronation as Roman emperor, was the supreme architectural marvel of Christendom, the gold-sheathed and jewel-studded house that testified to the triumph of God.
Unfortunately, little of it remains. In 614, after the Persian conquest of Jerusalem, the Holy Sepulchre was sacked. Some restorations took place over the next few hundred years, but then, catastrophically, the Caliph al-Hakim, a religious fanatic who believed that no Christian institution should be allowed to stand on ground associated in any way with Islam, ordered the complete demolition of the Sepulchre. But by then there were many other Christian churches in what had been the pagan East, built and supported by funds from the confiscation of temple treasures, and untouchable by any caliph.
Constantine did not, of course, confine himself to church building. He was an indefatigable legislator who also rewrote many of the laws relating to behavior and punishment. Noting that eminent Christians of the past, like Saint Paul, had complained of the obligation to sue one another in pagan law courts over civil matters, he made it legal for them to take their cases out of the hands of civil judges and into the arbitration of bishops, whose verdicts would be final. This greatly increased the Church’s power over civil life, as Paul had hoped it would. In the criminal domain, he abolished crucifixion as a punishment, holding that our Lord’s manner of death should no longer be the atrocious and degrading thing that pagan Rome held it to be; it was wrong to subject common criminals to what Christianity considered a fearful but now hallowed form of sacrifice.
This was not due to squeamishness. When it came to inflicting pain, Constantine could be as brutal as any other emperor. On the complicated matter of sexual behavior, Constantine’s views were so extreme as to qualify as psychotic, and must certainly have seemed so to anyone accustomed to the more relaxed attitudes of pagan family law.
In an edict of April 1, 326, he totally forbade married men to keep mistresses. Only men (husbands, fathers, brothers, or uncles) could bring denunciations of adultery within a family—women never. Rapists and seducers must be burned alive, a punishment which could also be inflicted on any girl who eloped without parental approval, and on anyone who aided the elopement. If a nurse encouraged a girl to take off in this way, her mouth would be forced open so that boiling lead could be poured down her throat. But a girl who lost her virginity to a rapist also deserved punishment; clearly, she had been asking for it—she could have stayed home. Worse, Constantine ordained that, once raped, she must lose the right to inherit property from her parents. This condemned her to the marginal life of a reject, since it deprived her of the dowry without which no man would marry her.
It might seem difficult to reconcile the author of such repugnant statutes with the man often praised for bringing the message of gentle Jesus to a pagan world. But within the soul of Constantine, an innate sadism was looking for an outlet, and found it in the misogynistic lunacies of Christian asceticism. This can be seen from the wretched fate of Crispus, Constantine’s eldest son, by an early marriage. A young married man who enjoyed a brilliant reputation as a military prodigy, and had already served as Caesar to his father’s Augustus, Crispus certainly would have succeeded to the imperial throne. But, for reasons which are still obscure, Constantine’s newer wife, the Empress Fausta, accused him of violating her. It was her word against his: there was no proof. In an ungovernable rage, Constantine put Crispus on trial, with himself as sole judge, declared him guilty, and had him executed. But then Constantine’s aged mother, Helena, who did not believe the story about Crispus and Fausta, seems to have received some persuasive evidence that Fausta had concocted it to cover her adultery with a palace slave. When this was revealed to Constantine, he had Fausta shut in the hot room of the imperial-palace baths, whose furnaces were then stoked so that she boiled to death. Crispus was put to death in Pola. This caused some political embarrassment, and it is probably why Helena went on an ostentatious pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 326, the year Crispus was executed. It cannot have been an easy trip, since she was almost eighty when she set out. But the dowager empress played her role with impressive determination, with her son encouraging her to spend whatever was needed to help people forget the Crispus-Fausta scandal and the delicious gossip it had ignited. It was during this trip that she endowed two churches in Palestine, the one in Bethlehem to commemorate Mary and the nativity of Jesus, and the other dedicated to his ascension into Heaven from the Mount of Olives. She gave generously to whoever approached her on her progress through the Holy Land—soldiers, priests, the poor—and released prisoners from jail and the mines. She acquired enormous and bulky relics, such as the aforementioned stairs up which Jesus was supposed to have climbed in the house of Pilate, and shipped them to Rome. Then, worn out by her travels and benefactions, she died, probably in Nicomedia. Her body was placed in a massive porphyry sarcophagus and carried, under military guard, back to Rome.
As the religious as well as the political leader of the Roman Empire, Constantine inevitably had to deal with matters of heresy. Heresy had not been a problem for the older Roman religions, which left their devotees much freer in their selection of cults and rites than Christians would, or could, ever be. But Christianity was an intolerant religion which placed extreme emphasis on orthodoxy of belief. More and more, bristling phalanxes of bishops and theologians stood ready to do battle over the smallest inflection, the least quillet of doctrinal meaning. The result was a nightmare of religio-political correctness, in which the stakes were not simply the tolerance or disapproval of others but (it was believed) the soul’s prospect of eternity in Hell. This gave a terrible seriousness to theological argument. Ridiculous as many such debates may seem from a twenty-first-century viewpoint (there can be few believers left who care how many angels can dance on the head of a pin), in the fourth century they gave rise to the first Christian persecutions, in which one wing of the faithful tormented and killed members of another over what now look like absurdly minuscule differences of belief.
The first such split was over “Donatism.” This heresy had caused a schism in the Church in Africa, which had only slight repercussions in Europe. It arose, quite simply, from the fact that during the persecutions by Diocletian some Christians had knuckled under, denying their faith to save their skins. Now that Diocletian was gone and Christianity had become the state religion, these quislings sought to rejoin the Church and be forgiven. But a strong group opposed this, tooth and nail. To them, there must be no future forgiveness for former collaborators. Their leader was a Carthaginian priest named Donatus. This, one might have thought, could have been resolved at the lower levels of the Church, but it proved insoluble. The emperor himself had to rule on it—and he did, ordering the army to force the Donatists into submission. Thus began the first orthodox, official Christian persecution and martyrdom of “heretic” Christians.
There would be others. The most spectacular, bitter, and bloody of them was the fourth-century Arian persecution, which split the Church down the middle and caused seemingly illimitable suffering to many as Christians rejected, tormented, and frequently slaughtered one another over a single vowel, an extra “o,” descriptive of Christ’s relationship to God the Father and the Holy Spirit. Was Christ homoousios with God the Father (made of the same essence as God, and existing from the beginning of time), or merelyhomousios (similar in essence but not the same, and created after the Father, there having been “a time when he was not”)? This seemingly absurd dispute originated in Alexandria, with a highly intellectual priest named Arius (d. 336), who fiercely objected to any prevalent reading of the Scriptures that claimed that Christ was the Son of God, “begotten, not made,” sharing the Father’s divine essence, and existing for all time. Orthodox Christianity disagreed. It regarded the dogma of the Trinity—God consisting of three persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, who form one substance—as a basic and central tenet of faith, which it was heresy to deny. It was this “one substance” clause, as it were, that generated the passion over whether Christ washomoousios or homousios with his Father. The dogma of the Trinity was a “mystery,” not comprehensible through human logic; there were later attempts to rationalize it, though, as when a Victorian cleric argued that one need only imagine a carriage with three persons riding in it—to which another Victorian cleric retorted that one should try instead to envision three carriages with one single person riding in them.
The dispute was settled, after a fashion, when Constantine himself felt obliged to intervene. In 325, he summoned a council of bishops in the city of Nicaea to pronounce on the ideas of Arius. Their verdict, not unexpectedly, was that Arianism was a heresy to be stamped out. This was enshrined in the Nicene Creed, a document repudiating Arius and agreed to, pro forma, by all the bishops of the Catholic Church. Jesus was now officially homoousios with his father.
Despite Constantine’s gestures toward relative tolerance, by 325 paganism was a lost cause within the Roman Empire. Many of the supporters of Constantine’s erstwhile co-emperor Licinius, still a pagan, were killed off after his death. (Constantine was said to have had Licinius himself strangled, though the circumstances remain murky.) Most of the survivors were dismissed. Pagan rituals, such as sacrifice to the gods, divination, or the consultation of oracles, were now banned absolutely. In effect—and luckily for the archaeology of the future—pagans could keep their shrines, temples, and sacred groves, not demolish them, but not worship in them. Constantine made sure that no more pagans, or even those who had recently abjured pagan beliefs, would be appointed as magistrates, prefects, or provincial governors. All preference would go to Christians. But active persecution of pagan religions was not required, since it might provoke violent counter-reactions. Constantine wanted peace, albeit peace only on terms of submission to Christianity.
Apart from Christianity itself, the great beneficiary of Constantine’s power was the city of Constantinople, which he founded in 330, not quite a quarter-century after he was proclaimed emperor. To say that Constantinople was in any real sense the “new Rome,” replacing the original by a single act of will, is of course a foolish simplification. But Constantine was determined to found a new and great Christian city where he and later Christian emperors could hold their court in an environment not contaminated by physical memories of paganism—no temples to the gods, no relics of pre-Christian institutions. This ruled out rebuilding the site of Troy, which he seems to have briefly considered for its mythological attractions, but then rejected because he did not want his actions attributed to Homeric inspiration.
On Europe’s most southeasterly peninsula, between the saltwater strait known as the Golden Horn and the inlet from the Sea of Marmara called the Bosporus, was a neck of land on which stood the remains of a Greek settlement and the beginnings of a minor Roman city, its origins in the seventh century B.C.E. This city was known as Byzantion. It had obvious strategic and trade advantages. It stood at the intersection of the land route from Europe to Asia and the sea route from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. It was well placed for self-defense. Most of it was girdled by the waters of the Golden Horn to the north, and the Sea of Marmara to the south. It needed only a wall across its base, between the bodies of water, to make it very difficult to invade. The Via Egnatia linked it to Rome, and from it two other roads led east, toward Asia Minor. The land behind it was indulgent to crops and fruit, and rich in building stone. The sea around it fairly teemed with fish. Aqueducts gave it water, and as soon as serious building work began on the new city, they would be supplanted by many large cisterns, some forty of which survive (and are full of fresh water) to the present day—water palaces, one of which is known to the Turks as “the Cistern of a Thousand and One Columns,” which must be close to a factual description.
Here, a new capital could be built—the capital of what would from now on be the Eastern Empire. It would owe a triple allegiance to geography. It lay at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, between the worlds of Rome and the East, right on the borders of Europe and Asia. Yet it fully shared the character of neither. The Asia Minor to which it partly belonged was neither geographically nor ethno-culturally a part of Asia, though it belonged in a sense to the Asian continent. By the same token, the eastern Balkans, on which Byzantion and its territories abutted, were in most senses remote and disconnected from what an Italian, a German, or a Greek would be inclined to call “Europe.” Byzantion, no matter how or how far it was developed, was almost certain to be an anomaly to both Europeans and Asians. This suited Constantine very well. He threw the resources of his domain into this project, and the resulting metropolis was naturally named after him: Constantinople.
Less is known of the archaeology of Constantinople than of Rome. There are various reasons for this, but the chief one is that, since it was conquered by the Muslims in the early Middle Ages, the Turkish authorities have been at best reluctant, and at worst opposed, to having their city dug up in search of Christian remains, at the possible expense of later, Islamic ones. This deadlock is unlikely to be freed in the imaginable future; it would be too unpopular with today’s radical or even moderate Islam.
The building of Constantinople, spurred by Constantine’s desire for a new capital, went on very fast. In some respects it repeated the layout of Rome, with a central Forum, a Senate House, an Imperial Palace, and a main street, the Mese. Its center was the Hippodrome, where some of the great dramas of the city—political as well as sporting—would be played out after Constantine’s death. It did not, however, have a gladiatorial arena, and its churches took the place of temples. Constantine’s churches were almost always designed on the basilican plan, which produced a huge, long interior space without internal supports, similar to the basilica he had built in Trier when he was still Caesar there. Their ultimate model was the Roman Church of San Giovanni in Laterano, his vast thanks offering for victory at the Milvian Bridge.
Constantine died in 337 C.E. It is likely, though not certain, that despite his colossal achievements he was afflicted by a sense of failure: having killed his eldest son and likely successor, the gifted Crispus, along with his wife, Fausta, he could hardly have felt wholly fulfilled. He had three other sons, all formally recognized as Augusti: Constantine II, twenty-one years old at his father’s death, Constantius II (twenty); and Constans I (fourteen). Deadly quarrels immediately broke out among them. In 340 C.E., Constantine II—who had inherited control of the Western part of the Empire—attacked Constans I, ruler of Italy and Africa. The attack failed, and he was defeated and killed, which placed all the Western Empire (including Britain and Germany) in Constans’ hands, while Constantius II controlled the Eastern part. But Constans’ rule in the West was so harsh that his troops rebelled—an extraordinarily rare event in the Roman army—and in 350 C.E. he was deposed and killed. After much skirmishing, the officers who had led this revolt succumbed to internal bickering and were finally destroyed by Constantius II, who emerged in 353 as the ruler of a united Roman Empire.
After all this murdering and much more maneuvering, Constantius II found himself seeking a co-emperor: the task of running so vast an empire was more than one man could handle. He found a collaborator, as he thought, in Flavius Claudius Julianus (331–63)—Julian the Apostate—nephew of Constantine. As it happened, Constantius had already arranged, in 337, for the murder of Julian’s father and most of his close relatives, sparing Julian (and, for a while, his half-brother, Gallus) only because of their youth. This proved to be a grievous error. Julian had grown up with Gallus, in semi-internment under the thumb of Constantius in the remote provincial village of Macellum, in Cappadocia. Clearly, he was not happy about the massacre of his family (what anguish of survivor guilt did it raise in him?) and he never forgave Constantius for it.
Julian had been raised strictly as a Christian and had even taken lower orders as a lector in the church. His eventual “apostasy,” his turning away from the Christianity espoused by his egomaniac bully of an uncle, Constantius II, seems to have been a classic example of what can go wrong when beliefs are shoved down the throat of an intelligent, sensitive youth temperamentally unfit to receive or practice them. Constantius II, from the historian Ammianus Marcellinus’ account, took orthodoxy to new heights, and was rigidly obsessed with making his godlike stature felt:
He both stooped when passing through lofty gates (although he was very short), and as if his neck were in a vise, he kept the gaze of his eyes straight ahead and turned his face neither to left nor to right.… Neither did he nod when the wheels jolted nor was he ever seen to spit, or to wipe or rub his face or nose, or move his hands about.
This narcissistic and crazed formalist was hardly the kind of person to raise a young intellectual. He demanded from the lad a hostility for all Hellenic culture; and Julian’s predictable response was to embrace classical Greece, its art, its philosophy, and Platonic ideals, with enthusiasm. He took up studies in Athens in 355, in his early twenties. He also showed a real and unexpected talent for military command. Also in 355, Constantius II dispatched him to Gaul, to quell dissent among the Franks and Alemanni. Though completely untested in battle, Julian proved highly successful as a victorious general—this also while in his early twenties. So successful was he, in fact, that his troops were more loyal to him than to their remote commander, Constantius. When Constantius wanted to move Julian’s legions to fight in a coming Persian campaign, they mutinied and proclaimed him Augustus. Civil war loomed; it was only averted because Constantius unexpectedly died, leaving Julian as emperor—he would be the last pagan emperor of Rome.
To the young Julian, Constantius II’s mind-set seemed bigoted and barbaric—as indeed it was. Julian had a deeply religious temperament but not a Christian one. His natural bent was toward what was called “theurgy,” the pantheistic mysticism favored by the Neoplatonist philosophers of his time. There were undoubtedly quacks and charlatans among the theurgists, but at least it can be said that they did not have the fanatical character common among the early Christians, and no one was persecuted by them. He believed in the idea of “metempsychosis,” proposed by followers of Pythagoras: the direct transmigration of souls, from one body to another. (Julian apparently believed that his body was occupied and, as it were, animated by the spirit of Alexander the Great.)
Theurgy meant, in Greek, “divine work”; it was a kind of mystery religion, part Neoplatonist and part esoteric ritual based on (now lost) Greek texts known as the Chaldean Oracles. The theurgist hoped to learn how the universe worked and then apply its workings to his own advantage. Thus the soul would be purified. It clearly had a powerful appeal for Julian and other intellectuals who wished to preserve some of the character of the old worships. But since the rites of theurgy were understood to compel divine powers and not merely invoke them, it was not always easy to distinguish theurgy from magic. To a polytheist, the magic was white; it depended on a belief in hidden sympathies and affinities between different parts of the cosmos. To Christians, the magic was black, and had to be opposed because it was thought to summon demons. Julian’s beliefs, to the extent that they could be revealed to anyone outside his circle of fellow theurgists, struck Christians as being little short of witchcraft.
Just as Constantine had restricted his powerful favors to Christian petitioners, so Julian reserved his for pagans. He would not persecute “Galileans,” as he scornfully called the followers of Jesus, but he scarcely tolerated them; he withheld both his respect and his help from them. “When the inhabitants of Nisibis sent to beg his aid against the Persians who were about to invade the Roman territories, he refused to assist them because they were wholly Christianized. He would neither reopen their temples nor resort to the sacred places, and he threatened that he would not help them, nor receive their embassy, nor come to enter their city until he had heard that they had returned to paganism.”
In his political views, Julian looked back to an earlier Rome. What he admired was Augustus’ conception of the emperor as primus inter pares, “the first among equals,” a citizen not ostentatiously raised above his fellows, not a despot, and scorning the apparatus of imperial power. “The luxury of the palace excited the contempt and indignation of Julian,” wrote Edward Gibbon, “who usually slept on the ground … and who placed his vanity, not in emulating, but in despising, the pomp of royalty.” He deeply disliked such signs of servility as being addressed by inferiors as dominus or “lord.” He dressed simply and let his beard grow, which exposed him to ill-tempered satire. After the death of his wife, he is said never to have looked at another woman.
He felt a duty to assert the rights of his adoptive tradition against the arrogant presumptions of the state-sponsored Christians. In fact, because of his commitment to apostasis or “standing up” against Christian doctrine, he was known in his time and ever since as Julian the Apostate. Having won the status of official religion to the Roman Empire, the once-marginal sect of Christians went on the attack—and this began even before Julian’s ascendancy to Augustus. In the Theodosian Code of 357 C.E., the Emperor Constantius issued bans on soothsayers and astrologers, whose “evil teachings” must henceforth “become silent” and “forever cease.” They must all be deported from the city of Rome. Christian punishment for haruspication, the “heinous” ancient Etruscan practice adopted by Rome, seemed to know no limits. But the punishment of those who worshipped traditional gods at their traditional shrines was deliberately and cleverly left to those new fanatics, the Christian masses themselves, who could be relied on to do more damage in their effusions of zeal than need ever be planned by Christian bishops. Posses of hymn-chanting monks, the “black-robed tribe” of whom the traditionalist Libanius, a justly renowned orator and writer (314–93), complained to the Emperor Theodosios, pious drunkards “who eat more than elephants,” assailed the unprotected temples with stones and crowbars. “Then utter desolation follows, with the stripping of roofs, demolition of walls, the tearing down of statues and the overthrow of altars, and the priests must either keep quiet or die. After demolishing one, they scurry to another, and to a third.… Such outrages occur even in the cities.…”
But they were worst in the countryside, where, by ravaging the ill-protected temples, the Christians condemned countless sites to religious and therefore social and economic barrenness. “Temples, Sire,” Libanius tried to point out to Theodosius,
are the soul of the countryside; they mark the beginning of its settlement, and have been passed down through many generations to the men of today. In them the farming communities rest their hopes for husbands, wives, children, for their oxen and the soil they sow and plant. An estate that has suffered so has lost the inspiration of the peasantry together with their hopes, for they believe that their labour will be in vain once they are robbed of the gods who direct their labours to their due end.… One god supports the might of Rome, another protects for her a city under her sway, another protects an estate and grants it prosperity. Let temples everywhere continue to exist, then, or else let these people agree that you emperors are ill-disposed to Rome since you allow her to act in a manner that will cause her harm.
Constantius II, in his last will, had recognized Julian as his lawful successor, and now, with this authority confirmed, Julian set about restoring the damaged prestige of polytheism.
His first tactic was to reduce the Christian churches’ income, so lavishly bestowed on them by Constantine. Large sums had been confiscated—or, in plain terms, looted—from the pagan temples and given to the churches. Julian saw to it that they were given back, along with the income-earning lands taken by the churches. This could not, of itself, restore the loss and damage that the pagan religious foundations had undergone since the conversion of Constantine. But it went some way to rectify things—if only briefly. Sometimes one detects a heavy-handed, chortling irony in Julian’s abjurations. Thus he took obvious pleasure in imposing heavy fines on the Christians of Edessa for “the insolence bred by their wealth,” by invoking Jesus’ praise of the poor and lowly: “Since by their most admirable law they are bidden to sell all they have and give it to the poor so that they may attain more easily to the kingdom of the skies … I have ordered that all their funds that belong to the church of Edessa … be confiscated; this is in order that poverty may teach them to behave properly and that they may not be deprived of the heavenly kingdom for which they still hope.” And to cancel the Christian laws against pagan practices, which Julian did, was a great step in the liberal direction. Julian had little time or respect for Christians, but he was too shrewd a strategist to persecute them. Instead, he offered toleration to every faith and cult—especially to “heretics” and to Jews. “I affirm by the gods,” he declared, “that I do not wish the Galileans to be either put to death or unjustly beaten, or to suffer any other injury; but nevertheless I do assert absolutely that the god-fearing must be preferred to them. For through the folly of the Galileans almost everything has been overturned, whereas through the grace of the gods we are all preserved.”
His one wholly anti-Christian enactment, which infuriated the “Galileans,” was to forbid them to teach the classics in schools, for classical literature was still the basis of all higher education: let them stick to their own beliefs, Julian in effect said, and preach to their own kind about the glories of monotheism, but leave others to teach earlier Roman literature in the polytheistic spirit which originally lay behind it. “I think it is absurd that men who expound the works of [the classic writers] should dishonor the gods whom these men honored.… Since the gods have granted us liberty, it seems to me absurd that men should teach what they do not believe to be sound.” No Christian, therefore, who presumed to teach grammar, rhetoric, or especially philosophy could be considered a good person, since he was preaching what he did not practice or believe in. He would be a hypocrite and so was bound to corrupt the young, even when he did not want to. If this policy could be carried out, Julian believed, the whole educated elite of the Roman Empire would, within a couple of generations, be pagan once again. Meanwhile, the pedants and monotheists must leave him and his like-minded people alone. “I worship the gods openly, and the whole mass of the troops who are returning with me worship the gods.… The gods command me to restore their worship in its utmost purity, and I obey them, yes, and with a good will.”
As well as seeking restitution of confiscated pagan land and buildings, Julian worked hard to reassert the independent power of the curiales, or city councils (as against the influence of the bishops). This alone, quite apart from his religious beliefs, was bitterly resented by the Christians. He tolerated Christians not because he liked them or respected their beliefs, but because he recognized the truth of the saying that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church. He did not want to give the “Galileans” victim status, or do anything that might have aroused sympathy for them. Noting the doctrinal squabbling among Christian clergy and theologians, and the fierce rivalries it caused, he thought it wise to play a waiting game and let the “Galileans” weaken one another. Could this have worked? It is unlikely, but in any case we cannot know, because in 363 Julian was killed, during a campaign against the Persians. A spear thrust pierced his liver. This fatal wound may have been inflicted by a Persian or (possibly) a disloyal Christian in his own army. He was the last pagan emperor, and all his immediate successors did their best to eliminate whatever he might have achieved. Julian’s hostility to Christianity was deeply felt, but it was slight and measured compared with the fury with which Christian emperors after him would persecute intellectual pagans, staging ferocious witch-trials on various concocted pretexts, usually the possession of “wrong” or heretical books.
Julian was succeeded as emperor by the relatively moderate Christian Jovian (331–64). He had reigned for only a year when he died of carbon-monoxide poisoning, from a defective brazier. His ill-educated successor, Flavius Valentinianus (321–75), known as Valentinian, showed tolerance toward pagans but was fatally short-tempered; he lost his temper so completely during a peace negotiation in 375 that he suffered a stroke and died. The throne now passed to his pious and sadistic younger brother, Valens, who instituted a series of purges of real or suspected pagans—carried out with a “monstrous savagery,” wrote the fourth-century chronicler Ammianus Marcellinus, that “spread everywhere like a fiercely blazing torch.” The record of denunciation amassed by Valens’ inquisitors was such that no literate or philosophic-minded person felt safe under his rule, so that “throughout the eastern provinces owners of books … burned their entire libraries, so great was the terror that had seized upon all.” Merely to be accused of sorcery or un-Christian beliefs led to summary execution; men were maimed, hideously torn with hooks, and dragged off to the scaffold or the chopping block. And, as in Germany a millennium and a half later, “the scene was like a slaughtering of cattle: and
innumerable writings and many heaps of volumes were brought together from various houses and under the eyes of the judges were burned—being pronounced unlawful, to allay the indignation at the executions, although the greater number were treatises on the liberal arts and on jurisprudence.
But history would soon have its revenge on Valens, and, as many would come to see it, on Rome itself. This revenge erupted from the Germanic people known as the Visigoths, who had settled early in the fourth century in a former Roman province known as Dacia—approximately, modern Romania. These people were invaded soon after by other Germanic tribes, who in their turn had been displaced by invaders from Central Asia known as the Huns. Driven by starvation and deprivation, the Visigoths in 376 petitioned the imperial government in Constantinople to be allowed to cross the Danube and seek refuge in Thrace. Instead of refusing them, the Eastern Emperor Valens made the error of allowing the Visigoths free entry to his territory. His motive was simple and wrong: he thought he could co-opt the loyalty of the new immigrants, and get their warriors into his armies, which already contained numerous Visigoths. He also expected that his own soldiers could get their hands, by cunning fraud if not by violence, on the wealth the Visigoths would bring with them.
So, as soon as they were across the Danube, the Visigoths found themselves in conflict with Roman officials. They were battle-hardened, badly deprived people who realized that the Romans were ready to cheat them blind. So they fought back. In 377, their revolt spread to include other groups, especially slaves. Much to the amazement of imperial officialdom, the rebels forced a Roman retreat.
Valens could hardly believe this, but he resolved to crush the Visigothic rising. And so, on the eastern frontier, near the modern city of Edirne, Turkey, then known as Adrianople, battle was joined. By now the Roman army, once so unified, homogeneous, and dreaded, consisted largely of mercenaries who were not fighting for their homelands. It did not have the esprit de corps of former days, and presently an incredulous Roman citizenry would learn that the barbarians had overwhelmed it at Adrianople—the Visigothic victory was so complete that the corpse of Valens could not even be found beneath the heaps of the Roman dead, containing two-thirds of the Roman army and some thirty-five of its senior officers. Fritigern, the Visigothic leader, could not have dared to expect so total a triumph.
The catastrophe at Adrianople shook Roman self-confidence so badly that it has been regarded, ever since, as comparable to Rome’s stupefying loss to Hannibal at Cannae, six centuries before.
This did nothing to ease the transition from paganism to Christianity. Most worshippers of the old gods saw no reason whatsoever to give up their faith, and many regarded the new Christians as a pack of arrogant, moralizing primitives. In response, the Christians, emboldened and presumptuously certain that they alone possessed the Truth, could and did behave with an equal high-handedness and violence toward “obstinate” pagans—it was their turn to do some persecuting. There were many cases of this, and some of the flare-ups were deadly. One was the destruction of the Serapeion in Alexandria at the end of the fourth century. This temple, dedicated to the Egyptian god Serapis, was one of the most famed and revered sites of pagan cult in the Mediterranean, and attracted numberless worshippers. It had remained intact and unmolested through the reign of Constantine the Great. But in 391 it was seized, sacked, and desecrated by a mob of Christians, at the behest of Theophilos, bishop of Alexandria:
The statues were removed, the adyta [secret places where objects used in worship were kept] were exposed; and, in order to cast disrepute on the pagan mysteries, [Theophilos] made a procession for the display of these objects, the phalli, and he made a public exhibition of whatever other objects … were, or seemed to be, ridiculous.
Offended by this grossly provocative insult, the pagans at the Serapeion attacked the Christians, killed a number of them, and seized the temple. Reprisals were violent and prolonged, culminating in the crucifixion of several Christians and a declaration by the Emperor Theodosius I that the dead Christians were blessed martyrs and candidates for sainthood. Realizing that the next step was likely to be a full-scale attack by imperial forces, the pagans of the Serapeion panicked and fled.
The Serapeion was the best-known but certainly not the only pagan foundation in which this sort of takeover occurred. Strangely enough, at first sight, such conversions were late in coming to Rome itself. The first Roman temple to be converted to Christian use was the Pantheon, which in 609 was finally rededicated as Sancta Maria ad Martyres by Pope Boniface IV. What did this suggest? Only that people tend to be slow in giving up the religions they are used to, and that when a city has a large population of believers—and Rome had the largest—they will be correspondingly slower. For centuries after the death of Christ, Rome would remain a city in which all manner of cults continued to flourish. But now Christianity had taken its majority holder’s place in the general repertoire of belief, and nothing was going to dislodge it. From that point on, it could only grow, and, in growing, push out weaker cults whose survival no longer had the mandate of a growing popularity.
1 Here, the word “holocaust” is given its earlier and correct meaning: a multiple sacrifice and incineration which is pleasing to the Lord, not the mass murder of an unwilling people.
2 Mithraism was practiced by the pirates whom Pompey suppressed in 67. It took hold in ancient Rome in the first century B.C.E. Its spread was so rapid that the Emperor Commodus was initiated into the cult at the end of the second century C.E., and it was an important factor in the religious initiation of Julian the Apostate, in the fourth century.