Ancient History & Civilisation



You asked me to write an answer to the lying distortions spouted by those people who are strangers to the City of God. They are called pagans after the rustic crossroads and villages (pagi) they inhabit and foreigners (gentiles) because all they know about are earthly matters. They have no interest in things to come: as for the past they have either forgotten it or are simply ignorant. Nevertheless they still claim that the present day is unusually beset with disasters for this one reason alone, that men believe in Christ and worship God, while idols received less and less cult.

(Orosius, History against the Pagans Preface 9)

The Rise of Religions

Once upon a time, the Romans felt they enjoyed the special favour of their gods. Those gods were in a sense their fellow citizens. Their worship in the public rituals—the sacra publica —of Rome was the organizing centre of the religious lives and identities of the Romans. How this cohered with the public cults of the other communities of the empire was, as I have explained already, a little unclear. Yet the many polytheistic religious systems of the classical Mediterranean were not so different, and the worship of the emperors figured in them all, one way or another. Across the empire, the wealthy built temples, took on priesthoods, and celebrated festivals: all seemed to prosper.

Abandoning this pact with heaven was, in the eyes of many, an act of lunacy that had brought about the collapse of Rome’s fortunes. Augustine, writing The City of God after the first sack of Rome in 410, felt he had to answer these charges. Roman success owed nothing to the cult of the gods, he argued, since there were disasters even in the period of pagan worship. Religious piety brought rewards in the next world, not this one. Earthly disasters like the sack of Rome were irrelevant. Can Augustine have really thought this? He wrote The City of God as Bishop of the African city of Hippo Regius, but in his earlier career he had been a professor at Carthage, had then been head-hunted by the senatorial prefect of Rome for a more prestigious position there, then finally went to the western imperial capital at Milan. Only in Milan had God claimed him, and brought him back via communities of contemplative scholars to lead the Christians of this small town in North Africa, not so far from the even smaller town where he had been brought up. Even so he cannot have failed to be shocked by the events of the early fifth century. Africa was far from the collapsing northern frontier, and the world Augustine had been born into, where he had studied and taught, had been thoroughly Roman. The move to Rome had attracted him because of the reputed quiet of the students compared to those of Carthage. At Milan he must have become more aware of the deteriorating situation, but the fall of Rome shocked everyone. The Vandals were already in Spain as he wrote: before his death they would cross the Straits of Gibraltar and begin the short war that would result in their capture of Carthage. Among the refugees from Spain who fled to Africa was Orosius, who became a pupil of Augustine and in 417 wrote at his suggestion another response, a seven-volume History against the Pagans. The preface states that pagans in their ignorance had claimed that there were now more calamities and disasters because men believed in Christ and worshipped God and increasingly neglected the worship of idols. Orosius set out to demonstrate the many disasters of earlier days. The result is a horrible history of the world, six books relating events up to the birth of Christ, the last offering a fascinating narration of Roman history, in which acts of imperial tyranny and military disasters are ameliorated by the power of God as the number of Christians in the empire grows.

The gap between traditional world views and Christian history is obvious enough. But it is symptomatic of a much wider phenomenon. Christians did not only disagree with others about the reason for the current crisis; they also disagreed about the relationship of the cosmological with the political and social order of things. Traditionally ritual action had been mostly constrained within existing social entities, such as the family, the city, the army unit, or the empire itself. Christian communities were composed of believers who might have little in common except their belief, and who might be separated by that belief from other members of their families, cities, and so on. Nor were Christians alone in this. Manichaeans, Jews, and several other groups had also come to think of their religious identities as something separable from other aspects of society. Augustine expressed this more clearly than most in his distinction between the temporal Earthly City and the City of God, but the idea had become widespread. It is this idea from which has grown our notion of ‘religions’ as separate entities, rather than of religious action as just one dimension of broader social life. The reason the Christians were able to withstand the disaster of the sack of Rome was that this idea of religion had become deeply entrenched. The great history of the Roman Empire, in other words, had been taken over by another even grander narrative, the rise of religions.

The development of religions, in the plural, as bounded entities with their own institutions and membership, as things that can be contrasted to citizenship, class, or kinship, is relatively new in world history. Humans have had ritual much longer: it probably originated with homo sapiens sapiens between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago, and is one of the few things that genuinely separates us from all other animal species, some of which use tools, have some kind of language, and live in complex societies. Humans alone bury their dead, make art and music and dance, and perform rituals.1 Until recently all this ritual was closely woven into everyday life. It is more or less impossible to separate Athenian or Roman religious identity from their wider senses of belonging. It follows that conversion is more or less meaningless in antiquity, unless as one component of changing one’s citizenship.2 No Greek or Roman words correspond to our notion of religion. Indeed specialists in the history of religion see that concept as evolving only gradually. Our modern concept of a religion as an organized body with members, norms, specific beliefs and practices, and a sense of exclusive adherence—that one must choose which one religion to belong to— perhaps only became generalized in the nineteenth century.3

The first signs of the separating out of religion as a distinct sphere occur during classical antiquity. Euripides’ Bacchae, written at the very end of the fifth century BC, dramatizes the disruptive power of a religious movement that challenged the religious authority of leading members of the city and might divide families and communities down the middle. This Dionysiac cult represents one of several origins of religious pluralism. Rome experienced its own panic about Bacchanales in 186 BC. Rumours circulated, as they later did in the case of Christianity, about strange nocturnal rituals. But it is clear that what really shocked was the lack of respect for social boundaries, and the implicit challenge to existing religious authority, which in most places was concentrated in the hands of the elite.

Groups whose members were united primarily by religion became more widespread in the Hellenistic and early Roman periods.4 Dionysus/Bacchus was an ancient god whose name appears in texts from the Greek Bronze Age, and who had a central role in Athenian public religion signified by the festival of the Greater Dionysia, the major occasion for dramatic performances. It was not the god himself, but the form of worship and association represented by Bacchism that shocked. Other groups began as the cults of migrant populations and then attracted worshippers from their host communities. The Egyptian goddess Isis, in a Hellenized form, became popular around the Mediterranean in this way. So did the Baalim of various Syrian cities, the Great Mother of the Gods from Pessinus in Asia Minor, and the god of the Jews. Populations moved about within the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman empires for all sorts of reasons: traders, slaves, soldiers, colonists, and missionaries moved around the urban system, bringing their gods with them.5 Some, like Magna Mater, were given public cult in some cities. Others were always marginal. Religion also had roots in Greek society. Mystery cults proliferated, many imitating the original Mysteries of Demeter and the Maiden at Eleusis, once the main cult of an independent city but swallowed up into Athenian religion in the archaic age. Pilgrims came to be initiated here, and in Samothrace and in a series of other centres, and some more mobile groups, including worshippers of Cybele and Mithras, developed their own Mysteries.6 Philosophical sects provided yet another model of a group with a single name—Epicureans, Stoics, Cyrenaics—often a charismatic founder, and authoritative texts, a group one could join or leave as one chose. From the first century AD Jews too were identifying different traditions, and at least one, the Qumran community known from the Dead Sea Scrolls, looks very much like a religion. Sanctuaries attracted pilgrims from across the world.7 Yet often we see cults that had originated in specific places being transformed into a more mobile form. Examples of this move from ‘locative’ to ‘utopian’ forms include the creation of Hellenized versions of Egyptian deities like Isis and Serapis, the growth of rabbinical traditions within Judaism, and of course Christianity. Almost all these groups were periodically focuses of intra-communal tension: at various points the authorities in Rome turned their fire on Bacchanales, Isis worshippers, Jews, astrologers, and Christians. Other cities often did the same. Yet religious groups of this kind continued to thrive. Mithraism and Manichaeanism both represent religions created from scratch, drawing on symbols, rituals, and divine names from older traditions but brought together into a completely new combination, well suited to the social environments within which they sought recruits. We can see some signs of competition for worshippers, or at least for the gifts they might bring. Perhaps the clearest indication is the way a successful feature of one cult would be taken up by another. The ancient Mysteries of Eleusis were copied at Samothrace, by the worshippers of Cybele, Mithras, and other groups; standard Greek anthropomorphic imagery was adopted by cult after cult; astrology was incorporated by almost every religious tradition from Judaism and Mithraism to the worship of Egyptian and German deities; and male gods were equated everywhere with Jupiter the Greatest and Best. Another sign of competition was the efforts clearly made to retain the attention of worshippers. Mithraists were invited to proceed through a series of grades; initiates at Eleusis had to return for a second initiation in a subsequent year; the ritual of the Taurobolium, a bull sacrifice associated with Cybele, had to be repeated every twenty years; while priests at healing sanctuaries and oracles advertised their successes and encouraged return visits.

Perhaps claims to a monopoly on salvation emerged from this context. The idea that a person might focus in a personal way on one god within a polytheist pantheon was an old one, and one exploited by Romans from the Republican period on.8 Sulla cultivated the idea he was a special favourite of Venus, Augustus claimed the favour of Apollo, Vespasian was assisted in his coup by Isis, and so on. Many gods were hailed in dedicatory inscriptions as ‘The Greatest and Best’ or ‘The Most High’.9 Giving one deity a special place is sometimes called henotheism. Some Isaic revelatory texts claim Isis is the ‘true’ name of a goddess also worshipped under other names, including Cybele, Artemis, Venus, and Hecate.

Early Christianity emerged into this complex religious environment. The exclusive claim, despite its origins in Judaism, was maybe most important as a unique selling point relative to other emergent proto-religions. The Gospels represented the choice to follow Christ as something that might divide families in the most radical way. Luke tells the story of the man who says he will follow Christ once he has buried his father. ‘Let the dead bury their own dead,’ replies Christ.10 There are several stories of this kind. Even earlier Paul had declared that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.11 What we are observing in these texts is the assertion of a new social identity based solely on religious membership, and one that cuts across the most fundamental social boundaries of antiquity. Christians were not the only ones to assert that sort of identity. Augustine was raised a Christian, but for a while joined the Manichaeans, whose founder created a new religion by drawing on Christian, Zoroastrian, Jewish, and other traditions. Manichaean missionaries were sent to North Africa, India, and ultimately central Asia and China too. Then there are the rather mysterious Mandaeans of Mesopotamia, whose rituals and texts have been formed in the course of a long dialogue with Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam. Inevitably traditional religious practice came to be reinterpreted as the practice of a rival—and false—religion, which was sometimes termed Hellenism and sometimes paganism.

The Rise of Christianity

Modern estimates of the growth of Christianity stress the very small scale of its beginnings. It is difficult to imagine what life was like for the first generation of Christians: they had no scriptures, most had been born Jews, and perhaps many still thought of themselves as Jews. They numbered in the low thousands and were widely scattered, mostly among the larger cities of the eastern Mediterranean world.12 Paul’s Letters and the account of his travels in Acts give some sense of how these groups kept in touch and maintained some sort of cohesion. But there are huge gaps in our knowledge. By late antiquity there were major Christian communities in North Africa and Egypt, but we know nothing of their origins. The emergence of a greater concern with orthodoxy and discipline in later centuries produced highly edited accounts of the early Church.

Christianity emerged from these shadows during the second century AD. Christian writers and Jewish leaders, for different motives and certainly not in collusion, created a sharper divide between Christianity and Judaism, one that would be entrenched in the fourth century with the aid of imperial muscle.13 House churches were drawn together in each city under the leadership of one bishop. The number of Christians grew exponentially. Many must have felt themselves surrounded by converts and part of a mushrooming movement. Yet absolute numbers remained small: non-Christian texts hardly remark on the existence of Christians before the year 200. From the later second century, we have the first evidence for Christian communities in North Africa and in Gaul. Most seem to have used Greek, suggesting their closest connections remained with the eastern Mediterranean. Something close to our notion of the New Testament had emerged by this period too, although the inclusion of some books, such as Revelation, remained controversial. Latin translations of Christian scripture began to circulate by the middle of the second century, along with apologetic works and the first attempts to police the boundaries of the Church. Heretics were those who held false beliefs, like the Marcionites who rejected the Jewish scriptures in their entirety. Schismatics had the right beliefs but rejected the authority of the proper authorities.

The rise of episcopal authority was intimately connected with the rise of orthodoxy. The life and work of Irenaeus of Lyon offers an early example. Eusebius, in his History of the Church written shortly after Constantine’s conversion, states that he was a pupil of the martyred Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna, himself believed to be a disciple of the apostle John. But that kind of genealogy was a conventional way of establishing authority. At some point Irenaeus appears as a priest in the Greek-speaking Christian community of Lyon, around the time of a local persecution recorded by Eusebius and dated to the reign of Marcus Aurelius. That community sent Irenaeus as an envoy to the Bishop of Rome prompted by their concerns about the news that Montanus, a priest in central Anatolia, claimed to have received a New Prophecy from God. Montanism was just the first heresy Irenaeus set out to refute. As Bishop of Lyon, he wrote copious works in Greek, among them a defence of the canonical status of the four Gospels, and one of the earliest heresiologies, or catalogues of heresies. The immediate inspiration for that work was the arrival in Lyon of a group of Greek merchants spreading the ideas of Valentinus, whose blend of Christian thought and mystical revelation produced an early form of what is now termed Gnosticism. But for Irenaeus the error could be traced all the way back to the magician Simon Magus, who appears in Acts, thus creating a genealogy of error that could be set against the genealogy of orthodox teaching. Hippolytus, Bishop of Rome, also opposed Valentinianism, using some of Irenaeus’ writings to do so. Both the campaign against Montanism and that against the teachings of Valentinus illustrate the interconnectedness of early Christian communities across the Mediterranean. Within that network new ideas circulated rapidly, carried by both missionaries and texts. From late antiquity several large bodies of episcopal letters survive concerned above all to maintain a united front against schism and heresy. The organization of the Church was generated from below, its institutions and higher-level authorities a creation of those obsessed by unity. Bishops closed ranks around scripture, and opposed the threats to their authority posed by new revelations and charismatic prophets.14

Christian communities devoted enormous energy to this activity, but it was largely esoteric. Non-Christians probably knew relatively little about their actual beliefs or concerns, just as many were ignorant about the Jews in their midst. A small number of local persecutions are recorded. Most are known through the writings of Eusebius and his early fourth-century contemporaries, who were keen to gather accounts of the deeds and deaths of martyrs. Roman governors and emperors did not extend to Christians the protection they sometimes gave Jewish communities in similar circumstances. Letters between Pliny while governor of Bithynia-Pontus and Trajan indicate that some kind of ban existed—the origins are obscure—but emperors were not keen to enforce it. Persecution was probably less common than simple unpopularity. Until the early third century Christians were perhaps a rather introverted group, if a growing one. Few scholars believe more than 10 per cent of the empire’s subjects were Christians in Constantine’s day and the figures could easily be even smaller. Very few Christians of high social status are known before the third century AD.

The first general persecution was that organized by the Emperor Decius in 250 AD, in the darkest days of the military crisis. Probably this was a response to the refusal of some Christian leaders and communities to participate in a great supplicatio, a collective ritual of sacrifice involving all Roman citizens.15 Since Caracalla’s Edict of 211, the citizen body comprised most free subjects of the emperors. General persecution, in other words, was an accident. Caracalla had inadvertently created something completely lacking in early centuries, a form of religious authority that might be applied to the empire as a whole. Decius’ attempt to employ it had exposed a group who practised exclusive cult of one god. Yet the anger that fuelled persecution perhaps drew on a sense that the military disasters and the great plague were a response to Christian abandonment of the gods. Galerius and Diocletian seem to have exploited the same sentiments when in 303 they organized their Great Persecution. It involved purges of the military, the confiscation and destruction of sacred texts, and attacks on churches and church property.

It was not the first edict of its kind. From the year before we have a letter addressed by Diocletian and his tetrarchic colleagues to the proconsul of Africa that roundly condemns another new religion, Manichaeism. The teachings of Mani are condemned as superstitions and errors, but also contrasted to the traditional and ancestral cults of the gods. The Manichaeans, like the Christians, were accused of trying to cast out the worship of the old gods. Worse still, they originated in the empire of the Persians, the enemies of Rome. Manichaean missionaries and sacred texts should be burned, and if any Roman of high status had converted then his property was forfeit, and he would be sent to the mines. The motivation for both persecutions seems clear. Christians and Manichaeans were enemies of the traditional gods; their origins and views were un-Roman; and they were unpopular, and the emperors wished to associate themselves with traditional values and cults. The implementation was another matter, and unfortunately our main sources are all Christian.

Church historians emphasized martyrdom, but this was probably rare in many parts of the empire. There is some question how far the persecution went into effect in the western provinces apart from Africa. The few who had died for their faith, and those who had been tortured rather than surrender sacred texts, were later idolized, to the irritation of those bishops who had neither died nor been tortured. A schism broke out in North Africa between those Christians who had handed over sacred books and those who were accused of effectively seeking out martyrdom. The death in 311 of Mensurius, Bishop of Carthage, associated with those who had not taken a stand, triggered a crisis in authority. That culminated in a division between the Donatists (named for their Bishop Donatus) and those who followed Mensurius’ line. Rival bishops and congregations appeared in many cities, and the division remained until the early fifth century. How far the failure of persecution mattered to the emperors is difficult to say. But Lactantius and Eusebius represented Diocletian and other persecuting emperors as monsters, and gleefully related their horrendous deaths.

A Christian Empire

Why was persecution abandoned? If it was popular, and created an enhanced sense of loyalty and solidarity within the empire, why stop? Christian apologists claimed that persecution accelerated conversion, because the example set by the martyrs impressed persecutors and (in the arena) audiences too. Yet comparative evidence does suggest the near eradication of Christianity was not an unrealistic aim. Manichaeism was eventually persecuted out of existence in the west by the combined action of Christian Roman emperors and Zoroastrian Persian shahs. Buddhism was more or less extinguished in medieval India first by monarchs dominated by Brahmin elites, and then by Muslim conquerors. Only fragments of the Christian communities of Roman Syria, Africa, and Spain survived the rule of the Islamic caliphate, despite the fact that overt religious discrimination was in fact unusual in its territories. Perhaps Diocletian could not have completely wiped out a group growing so fast, but he might well have been able to marginalize it and reverse the progress it was making in higher-status social groups. Was persecution of Christians a failure in the Roman world because Christians were not sufficiently hated to make a suitable target? Were its enemies insufficiently organized or motivated? Or was persecution simply too expensive to promote in regions where there were no local zealots?

Whatever the reasons, Edicts of Toleration were issued by Galerius in 311, and by Constantine and Licinius at Milan in 313. Toleration, or at least a cessation of persecution, was not in itself so strange. After all, something similar had in effect happened between the reigns of Decius and Diocletian. Much more remarkable was that around 312, Constantine began to actively patronize the Christians. Almost immediately he began work on a great series of basilicas around the city of Rome: St John Lateran and St Peter’s are among them. Most were complete by the mid-320s. They were, in effect, the first monumental places of Christian worship. Yet this was more revolutionary for Christians than for emperors. Other second- and third-century emperors had paid particular attention to specific deities, and some had built them vast temples in the capital. Hadrian built the great temple of Venus and Rome on a platform between the forum Romanum and the Colosseum. Commodus had himself portrayed as Hercules and had the Neronian colossal statue of Sol remodelled as Hercules.16 Less successful was the attempt by Elagabalus to install the cult of the chief god of Syrian Emesa in Rome. But Aurelian created a vast temple of the Sun with the spoils of his war against the Palmyran secessionists, and Diocletian used Jupiter and Hercules to represent himself and Maximinus, and then the parallel adoptive dynasties they were to found. During his rise to power Constantine had been associated in much more conventional ways with Hercules, Apollo, and the Undefeated Sun. The city of Rome in Constantine’s day had not been Christianized: rather the temples of yet another emperor’s divine familiar had been added to its crowded sacred landscape.17 Christ was, however, a different kind of deity, not one recognizable to most Romans in the way that Hercules and Sol were. Nor were his worshippers influential figures whose support was worth seeking. While the tradition of imperial temple building offers one kind of context to understand Constantine’s actions, and conversion offered Christians another context, neither seems to offer a complete explanation. The polarization of the source tradition does not help us reconstruct Constantine’s designs, but sometimes it feels as if he was deliberately engaged in a complex balancing act.


Fig. 21. The basilica, formerly Emperor Constantine’s throne room, now a Protestant church, Trier

Constantine did not require his courtiers to convert, yet by the end of the fourth century the imperial court was predominantly Christian. And there were new, powerful, figures around the emperor. Constantine gave a range of legal privileges to Christian bishops, and some had extraordinary access to him: as always in the imperial court, access meant influence. Constantine also lavished on them the most precious resource an emperor possessed, his own time. Almost immediately he had declared his patronage of Christianity he was petitioned by members of both factions in the Donatist schism. Petitioning an emperor was a perfectly common procedure, and it is not surprising that Christians made use of it. Yet where many petitions received a short answer, or resulted in an instruction to a governor or city council, in this case the emperor did give it his genuinely personal attention. It can only be concluded that at a very early stage Constantine’s advisers had impressed on him not just the importance of unity and orthodoxy, but also that neutrality was not an option for the emperor. Was Constantine an innocent drawn into problems the complexity of which he didn’t understand? Or a zealot inspired to devote the juridical power of the emperor, as well as his wealth, to the benefit of the Church? Or was he in fact a very traditional Roman emperor, concerned to win the support of the most powerful gods for the Roman people?

Either way, his inability to orchestrate an immediate reconciliation between the African bishops did not deter him from further efforts to achieve unity. Most ambitious was the summoning of the Council of Nicaea in 324, for which bishops were given permission to use the imperial transport system. Eusebius provides a vivid account. Bishops were summoned from all over the empire and met in the imperial palace where the emperor addressed them in Latin, his words translated into Greek for the benefit of the majority. The immediate cause was another attempt at reconciliation, but this time not of a schism but of a heresy, Arianism. At the centre of this dispute was an argument over the nature of Christ, how his human and his divine natures were related, and how he stood in relation to God the Father. Constantine’s concern seems to have been to achieve unity. His biographer Eusebius claimed that he achieved it: a common account of the nature of Christ was formulated, and a common date for Easter and the Nicaean Creed were agreed. Constantine’s own proclamation also has much to say on the wickedness of the Jews. The bishops were also then entertained, and involved in the celebration of the twenty-year anniversary of his reign. Unity was not, of course, achieved. The Arian heresy remained a central source of division through the fourth century, when several of Constantine’s successors embraced it. Christian missionaries to barbarian peoples also spread Arian ideas, most seriously to Gothic and Vandal groups, so that most of the new kings of the west were divided from the eastern empire and from their own Christian subjects on doctrinal grounds. Yet the long-term prestige Constantine gained from setting himself at the heart of the triumphant Church was enormous. On his death in 337, the position of the Church was unassailable. During the last years of his reign some Christians within Persia were looking to him as a natural ally against the Sassanian shah.18 A Persian persecution of Christians followed. Perhaps all this followed naturally from the anti-Persian polemic in Diocletian’s edict of 302 against Manichaeism. Constantine’s long reign had effected a permanent transformation. All subsequent emperors except one (Julian who ruled between 361 and 363) were Christians. The stage might seem to be set for a powerful fusion of Christian Universalism with Roman Imperial ideology, but in fact, the Christian empire came into being only by gradual stages, and it was far from unified.

For a start, traditional religion did not vanish overnight. Even if Julian’s attempted restoration was a failure, ancestral religion survived in many parts of the empire in one form or another. Publicly funded cults of the old gods continued in some cities until the end of the fourth century, and the writings of figures like Libanius of Antioch show that they still had their defenders among the elite.19 The senators of Rome were particularly tenacious supporters of the old gods, despite confrontations with the emperors over the matter as late as the 380s. The process of their conversion was a slow one that owed as much to social influence as imperial pressure.20 Emperors did not force the pace of change. Attacks on pagan temples were rare before the end of the fourth century; classical myths continued to be read—and represented in art—well into the fifth century. The philosophical schools of Athens remained open until Justinian closed them in 529. Isolated communities worshipping the old gods apparently survived in Asia Minor until the late sixth century.21

Constantine himself had set some limits on the influence of the bishops in this respect. The Edict of Milan extended toleration to all religious practice. Jewish ‘clergy’ benefited from some of the same privileges as Christian clergy, although terrifying punishments were set for those Jews who tried to convert Christians, owned Christian slaves, or circumcised them. Ancient temples were preserved in Byzantium even after it had been re-founded as Constantinople in 324. Indeed, some new temples were added, and the foundation of the city had involved astrologers and augurs. Constantine had, however, banned blood sacrifice, along with the consultation of oracles and the setting up of statues to the old gods. These were the central rituals in traditional religion. It is not surprising that none of these bans was universally accepted and that controversy continued over ritual practice until the end of the century. The fact the ban was issued, along with the legal restrictions imposed on Jews, shows Constantine had no great vision of a multi-faith imperial society, within which each religious community might pursue their own course under the benevolent and even-handed protection of a secular state. Pragmatism seems more likely from a soldier emperor who emerged from civil wars to reign for thirty years.


Fig. 22. The head of a gigantic statue of Emperor Constantine in the Palazzo dei Conservatori at the Capitoline Museum, Rome

Constantine’s religious motivations will always be obscure, but the pattern he set for Christian emperors is clearer. Even through the hagiographic filter of Eusebius’ Life, he emerges as an emperor whose success was in some respects highly traditional. He fought and survived civil wars and palace intrigues. He founded new cities, and patronized the Senate and people of Rome. Militarily and fiscally the empire was left in better shape at the end of his long reign than it was at his accession. The style of rule was literally spectacular, by which I mean that power was enhanced by everyday ceremonial and occasional festivities, performed on magnificent stages. The nature of his engagement with Christianity had to cohere with all this. It offered a new field of monumental building, and some new kinds of ceremonies. Ideologically it enabled him to draw implicit analogies between the divine ruler and his own rule. It brought him a new body of supporters. But if it was meant to offer new ideological solidarity, it failed. Christians, in the fourth century, all seem to have agreed on the importance of a common orthodoxy and common authority. Their ecumenical councils were quite unlike modern ecumenism that advocates tolerance of differences in belief and ritual and a loose federation of different churches. Yet fourth-century Christianity was riven by schism and heresy. As a result, the Christian empire would be more divided than what had preceded it. To a modern eye the amount of time Constantine and his successors devoted to questions of heresy and schism seems excessive. How, with the northern frontiers collapsing and relations with Persia so difficult, could they justify the energy and time they spent on the Church? Bishops of course had their own priorities, and their influence only grew over time. But emperors were neither fools nor dupes. Constantine had made a Faustian pact with Christ. The ideological support offered by Christianity and the rhetorical power of the bishops was potentially of enormous value to the embattled empire, but emperors could not afford to neglect its divisive potential.

Further Reading

Tim Barnes’s Constantine and Eusebius (Cambridge, Mass., 1981) is without doubt the best introduction to the complex history of his reign, even if it has not convinced all experts that Constantine was so wholly Christian right from the beginning.

The literature on the rise of Christianity is immense. William Harris’s collection The Spread of Christianity (Leiden, 2005) gathers a fine selection of views without trying to impose one answer. Ramsay MacMullen’s Christianizing the Roman EmpireAD 100–400 (New Haven, 1984) is a clear account, full of insight. Rodney Stark’s Rise of Christianity (Princeton, 1996) has been a good provocation for many historians. Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price helpfully set Christianity alongside other changes inReligions of Rome (Cambridge, 1998). Robin Lane Fox’s Pagans and Christians (London, 1986) conjures up the atmosphere of this exciting period better than any other book on the subject.

The implications for the empire and imperial society of Constantine’s decision have generated some of the most innovative scholarship. Peter Brown’s The Body and Society (New York, 1988) tracks the emergence of new literatures and practices of asceticism; the accommodation of Christianity and imperial high culture is the subject of Averil Cameron’s Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire (Berkeley, 1991); Dominic Janes’s highly original God and Gold in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, 1998) explores how a religion born in poverty came to terms with fabulous riches; Garth Fowden’s Empire to Commonwealth (Princeton, 1993) follows the tensions and interplay between religious and imperial universalisms through to the early Middle Ages. Alan Cameron’s The Last Pagans of Rome (New York, 2011) is a vivid portrait of the culture, politics, and society of a generation.


Map 7. Justinian’s reconquest (AD 565)

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