Ancient History & Civilisation

Jews, Christians and the State

In spite of all Greco-Roman accretions, the fundamental theology of the Christians had always remained Hebrew; and their reputation among the Romans was greatly affected by their Jewish origins.

The position of the Jews in the Roman empire was ambiguous. Since they did not worship the gods of Greece and Rome, they seemed atheists. They were also exclusive, both in regard to their customs – circumcision, diet of the Mosaic law, sacredness of the family –and in their conviction of being the Chosen Race. This exclusiveness endangered their survival by making them unpopular with their neighbours, whom they, in turn, appeared to dislike. ‘They regard the rest of mankind’, said Tacitus, ‘with all the hatred of enemies.’ Their relations with the Greeks, especially, were always strained, particularly in Alexandria where the Jews for a long time possessed a large colony. Moreover, Roman and Greek feelings of alienation from the Jewish communities were intensified by their two rebellions in Palestine (AD 66–70, 132–5), accompanied, on the latter occasion, by the renewal of earlier revolts in Egypt, Cyrenaica and elsewhere. And yet the isolation of their society was not only a source of moral strength to the Jews but also helped their position with the Romans, because it made their God seem a national deity –and that the government could understand and even tolerate. Early emperors protected the Jews and their right to follow their own religious law. Although the circumcision of anyone not of their race by birth was strictly forbidden, a Jew could not be brought into court on the sabbath, or be conscripted into the army, where he would have been unable to follow his prescribed way of life. This uneasy balance between protection and suspicion continued. The later second century AD, during which the Mishnah (the earliest part of the Talmud) took shape, was a period of success for the Jews. The name of Antoninus was popular in their tradition, for between the times of Marcus Aurelius and Caracalla – who both bore the Antonine name – they flourished and gained official recognition under their Rabbi Judah the Prince I (135–217).57 The Rabbi’s privilege of riding in an official carriage seems to be shown on the sculpture of a synagogue at Capernaum; and despite of Septimius’ suspicion (p. 224), there were many magnificent synagogues in Galilee. Important schools also sprang up at Sura on the Euphrates and elsewhere.58 For Palestine, owing to bad economic conditions and epidemics, was giving way to Mesopotamia as a Jewish cultural centre. The polyglot Mesopotamian city Dura has a synagogue with paintings which allegorise the destruction and resurrection of Israel’s national life, stressing, as Christians did, the continuity of Jewish history as a witness to God’s rewards and penalties for observance or breach of the law (c.AD 235). The building at Dura reveals in its decorative scheme how Hellenization had led the Jews – who like early Christians very often spoke Greek rather than Hebrew – to defy the Talmudic prohibition of representational art. Elsewhere, too, synagogues show Victory, the Sun-god, and even Leda and the swan. At Dura, amid a wide variety of artistic models, the Greek tradition is clearly perceptible in three nymphs attending the infant Moses. Ezra reading his scroll is like a Greek orator, and David with his harp too, although the picture is oriental in posture and arrangement, resembles Orpheus–whom Christians also equated with Jesus (p. 218).59

Yet it has seemed likely, to the excavators of Dura, that its Jews were attacked; perhaps Rome believed them to be sympathisers with Persia. Their salvation cycle on the walls may thus have had a contemporary significance. Only a few years earlier Septimius Severus had prohibited Jewish missionary activities, and Philostratus (p. 182), repeating ancient criticisms, had voiced an opinion of the Jews as rebellious against Rome and humanity, living irreconcilably apart, and ‘separated from ourselves by a greater gulf than divides us from Susa or Bactra or the more distant Indies’.60And conversely there is a strong Jewish tinge in the numerous anti-Roman and anti-Greek oracles which were in circulation. Nevertheless, Jews were exempted from the major persecutions of Christianity, or at least did not feel their full force.

When the empire became Christian, this ambiguous pattern did not change. Constantine used forcible language against the Jews, forbidding them to circumcise their Christian slaves or molest those who had abandoned the Hebrew faith for Christianity. Yet he also allowed their rabbis exemption from municipal duties.

It had been a long time before people clearly distinguished Christianity from its Jewish parent body. Although the Roman authorities had apparently seen some difference between the two faiths as early as Nero’s persecution (AD 64), the tendency persisted to treat the Christians as an extremist branch of Judaism.61 Moreover, if the Jews were excusable because they followed their ancestral religion, there was no such excuse for the Christians; and so they were even more unpopular. Besides, the appeal of Christianity to the lower classes and slaves, and its promises of a classless salvation,62 could easily be interpreted as subversive, especially in times of national emergency (p. 229).

Indeed, Greco-Roman society felt provoked by the whole way of life of the Christian communities. Without the Jewish justification of a national sect and custom, they too lived apart, worshipped apart, considered themselves Chosen, and set up values and standards opposed to those normally and traditionally current. Even after an immediate Second Coming was no longer expected (p. 217), their instructions were to love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. For ‘while a Christian is honestly serving God, he is a stranger even in his own state. We have been enjoined as strangers and sojourners to sojourn here but not to dwell here.’63 This was likewise the feeling of many thoughtful pagans of the time (p. 136), but it is easy to see how it aroused misunderstandings about Christianity; and these resulted in outbursts of violence. Already under Nero, Christians were made scapegoats, allegedly for arson but really, as Tacitus points out, because they seemed to ‘hate the human race’ – a charge that was also brought against the Jews.

And yet for another century or more the emperors, concerned as always to lower the temperature, were more inclined to protect Christians from the hostile public than to convict them of any crime. Early in the second century Pliny the younger, governor of Pontus and Bithynia, felt alarmed by their refusal to deny this perverse and excessive superstition. He therefore sought guidance from the emperor Trajan, who replied: ‘They are not to be hunted out; any who are accused and convicted should be punished, with the proviso that if a man says that he is not a Christian and makes it obvious by his actual conduct –namely by worshipping our gods –then, however, suspect he may have been with regard to the past, he should gain pardon from his repentance.’64 Nevertheless, although other emperors did not institute persecution, they felt obliged to allow it from time to time, on a limited scale. For otherwise popular agitation would have become too vigorous, to the detriment of law and order.65 Yet it was a remarkable privilege – indeed unique where criminal action against the state was concerned – that recantation brought a free pardon. For to act as a Christian could be interpreted as making a man liable to sanctions by provincial governors, under their general authority to protect the state religion. But enforcement was sporadic, and at times completely abandoned.

Under Marcus Aurelius, however, things took a turn for the worse. In both Gaul and Asia Minor the population rioted against the Christians as scapegoats for military, economic and natural disasters; and the Gallo-Romans hated the oriental Christian businessmen in the Rhone and Saone valleys, immigrants who were always vulnerable to xenophobia. In order to placate inflamed public opinion there were arrests and sadistic executions; and under Commodus the persecution spread to north Africa.

In the time of Marcus one of the victims was Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, whose examining judge could not understand his refusal to swear by the Genius of the emperor (p. 165).66 Yet Polycarp was able to point out that Christians had been taught to render honour, ‘if it hurt us not, to princes and authorities appointed by God’,67 and by the same token his fellow-Christian Irenaeus (p. 207), one of the founders of western medieval political thought, claimed that government is necessary because of the vices and shortcomings of mankind. It was also widely held by Christians that the simultaneous appearance of the Saviour and the Pax Augusta had not been fortuitous; thus Melito of Sardes, writing to Marcus, was full of praises of the imperial régime.68 But Marcus’ tutor Fronto was against the Christians, and a full-scale attack on them by the philosopher Celsus (? c.1778;p. 210), known to us from its refutation by Origen, treated their saying ‘no man can serve two masters’ as plain rebellion. Celsus regards the Christians as uneducated, stupidly anti-traditional, barbarous people, who contravened the laws governing secret societies. Why do they not shoulder their share of responsibility and hold office and fight as fellow-soldiers of the emperor? If everyone took your pacifist line, he told them, there would be an end of everything sensible –and of your kind of religion too.69

It was perhaps in the later second century that Minucius Felix, apparently a north African, wrote the first extant defence of Christianity in Latin. In doing so he quotes, for purposes of refutation, a representative hostile view, which shows how easily the wildest fabrications of obscenity and even cannibalism could be read into the little known morals and customs of the Christians.70 And from their ranks the Syrian Tatian retaliated by writing of pagans who ate Christian flesh to prevent its resurrection.

Septimius Severus directed the first coordinated, empire-wide sanctions against the Christians, forbidding both them and the Jews to proselytise, and subjecting converts to severe penalties (201–3). In north Africa, where executions are recorded, hostility to the Christians was displayed by the priests of the Egyptian deity Serapis, whose high favour from the emperor (p. 92) encouraged them to bring accusations and induced the governors of Africa and Egypt to give way to their pressure.

‘We are besieged,’ cried Tertullian (c.AD 160–228), ‘hunted down, taken by surprise in our secret congregations!’ But this impetuous, argumentative, learned African, who infused forceful conviction into his flashing, scathing Latin, had already struck a note which, far from conciliatory, showed a new aggressive confidence. For his Apologeticus attacked the pagans with a new directness and violence (197). He loathed the defiled tongues of their prophets, and the filthy heathen sacrifices; the blood, the smoke, and the stinking holocausts of dead beasts. For their sins they are condemned already to a far more frightful holocaust on the Day of Judgement, they and all their works.71

All the same Tertullian, a lawyer who adapted Roman judicial concepts to Christian doctrine, was at that time not lacking in temporal loyalty, which he still regarded as strongly in the Christian interest. ‘We know that the great force which threatens the whole world, the end of the age with its menace of hideous suffering, is delayed by the respite which the Roman empire means for us. We do not wish to experience all that; and when we pray for its postponement we are helping forward the continuance of Rome.’72 But as Tertullian developed the increasingly puritanical convictions which led him to fanatical Montanism (p. 240), his former patriotic feelings decreased to vanishing point. For now he turned right against the culture and tradition upon which the empire rested. Christians are instructed not to participate in any pagan functions, even family festivals, and mixed Christian-pagan marriages are denounced as idolatrous. Religious coercion by the state is deplored. He no longer troubles even to affirm formal loyalty; there is not a glimmer of compromise. No official position is tenable by a true Christian, and the sword is rejected as an anti-Christian tool of which the bearer will come to a nasty end. The only permissible military service is the army of Christ. Tertullian now felt that a Christian must not only refrain from sacrificing to the emperor–he must even avoid sacrificing for him.73

As attitudes continued to harden, Maximinus I, coming to the throne after a period of toleration, exiled rival Christian bishops to Sardinia (235), and, while anti-Christian animosity was being fomented by military and economic crises and earthquakes, began to enforce the existing regulations against the sect, and particularly against its clergy. Another lull followed. But when Origen wrote his refutation of Celsus (? AD 248–9), he knew that further troubles awaited the Christians, and that there would be terrible upheavals throughout the empire. And yet Origen now feels able to make conditions more confidently than Tertullian. The empire has smoothed the way for the Gospel, and ‘we defend it by praying for empire and emperor alike’: but only if he is a good ruler, and only for soldiers engaged in a just war. For Christ is stronger than the emperor and all his officers, and stronger than the senate and people of Rome.

Origen sees the church as parallel to the empire,74 and it was indeed a state within a state. Its organization, more efficient than that of any other religion, had suppressed the oligarchic and democratic elements of its origins in favour of episcopal autocracy. The earliest Christians had followed the Jewish custom by which each synagogue not only possessed scribes and priests but also a body of ruling elders (presbyters); and that is still the system upon which Presbyterian Calvinism bases its government. New Testament writers often use the words elder and bishop (episcopos) as synonyms, but during the second century a distinction becomes evident. Ignatius (d. c. 117) was already able to praise the system of episcopal control, and by c. 140 Roman bishops (popes) were special officers with spiritual and liturgical functions and care of the poor. With the support of Irenaeus’ demonstration that they were direct heirs of the apostles, the holders of other major bishoprics also emerged into the light (c. 190).

The growing importance of bishops meant a loss of power not only by elders but by the mass of lay members. In conformity with the idea of the universal Royal Priesthood of all Christians, these had earlier played a vigorous part in ecclesiastical government. In the time of Origen we still hear of decisions ratified by the whole assembly, including its lay members.75 This active participation of the laity was to remain a feature of eastern churches in which educated laymen were more numerous (p. 243), but the west was now taking the lead in a gradual movement to revert to older ideas by which the clergy were separated from the laity. By the fourth century all church functions and services were clericalised, and this was claimed to have a basis in law.

Already in the 250s the uniqueness and consequent sacramental purity of the Ministry was being stressed. This, for example, was the attitude of the first important north African bishop, St Cyprian (d. 258). A pacific, prudent man (though he fell victim to the Roman government), Cyprian believed that the abolition of more democratic methods in favour of episcopal power was more than compensated by gains in harmonious strength. For his Unity of the Catholic Church, communicated to the Council of Carthage (256), emphasised that, while the bishops were individual vehicles of the divine purpose, they embodied a single episcopal office. Cyprian was thus at pains to stress the united, dynamic solidarity of Christians. This was unrivalled in contemporary religions, and the strong leadership on which it was based served as a necessary counterweight to imperial and municipal bureaucrats. For example the freedman St Calixtus, pope or bishop of Rome 217–22, was himself a wealthy banker who could stand up to them.

Efforts were made to compensate for the loss of democracy by welfare measures that knew no social distinctions. These had precedents in Jewish charities and the mutual assistance projects of Greco-Roman social and burial clubs and orphanages. But all such previous arrangements were comprehensively exceeded by the imaginative care taken by every Christian community to look after its old people and widows and poor and oppressed and victims of the plague and other illnesses. In mid-third-century Rome, the community was supporting more than 1,500 widows and poor persons; and, stimulated by the exciting fellowship of common danger, parish organisation continued to improve.

All these endeavours were solidly based on a bank, developed in the time of Commodus and Septimius. Priests received salaries, and the church began to own property. Christians had long regarded its philanthropic activity as fundamental, unlike deviant sects which ‘have no care for love, none for the widow, none for the orphan, none for the distressed, none for the hungry or thirsty’.76 Look, cried Tertullian, how true Christians love one another. Their social services impressed even enemies such as the sceptically inclined Lucian; and two centuries later the emperor Julian attributed Christianity’s success, not only to an ostensibly strict way of life and meticulous burial of the dead, but to the feeding both of Christian poor people and non-Christian as well –while pagans neglect their own.77 Such measures and the human warmth behind them, in a terrifyingly impersonal world, contributed to Christianity’s eventual dominance. Moreover, slowly but steadily, this same humanity led to the condemnation of gladiatorial games, parents who exposed their babies at birth, and suicide (p. 83). But meanwhile Christian social services were the visible sign of an outstanding strength. For although love of one’s neighbour was found in other faiths, Christianity was the only religion to profess and practise total, revolutionary, unrestricted love, charity, compassion and consolation, without distinction of birth, sex, occupation, race or education, embracing in its promises of immortality even the sinner and hopeless and destitute whom society had rejected. The beggar Lazarus was on Abraham’s bosom, and the rich man left to be tormented in hell, because ‘Happy, you that are poor: for yours is the Kingdom of God. Happy, you that hunger now; for you shall be satisfied.’

Although the church was still relatively small and uninfluential, its effective administration seemed a provocation to the troubled government. And so Decius, when he now turned against the Christians, first singled out their leaders (250–1). Maximinus I had done this too, but Decius saw with even greater clarity the organised nature of the institution he opposed. For after executing their Roman leader St Fabian, he is said to have remarked, ‘I would far rather receive news of a rival to the throne than of another bishop in Rome.’

The state devoted its machinery to the task of securing reasonable uniformity. The universality of Roman citizenship (p. 82) did not exactly stimulate persecution, but it brought to the fore the idea that citizens should pay respect to the gods upon whom the national welfare depended. Decius did not ask Christians to give up their religion, but he would not tolerate their refusal to join in communal corporate observances. Decius was a soldier, and this was a soldier’s order. It was also a psychological gesture of policy, in a time of crisis when confidence was breaking down – an act of state to distract attention from people’s miseries and anxieties. Moreover, these same months seem to have provided the occasion for a unique issue of coinage in honour of earlier, deified emperors (p. 169): all citizens of Rome, their religious deviations forgotten, were to rally round these venerated figures of the glorious Roman past. Decius only required a single religious performance from the Christians. When this was done, the local Sacrificial Commission handed over a Certificate of Sacrifice (libellus), of which specimens have been found in Egypt. The church, being mainly urban, was dangerously vulnerable. Nevertheless, many Christians probably evaded the tests quietly. Others bribed the commissioners to give them certificates without sacrifice; and large numbers of Christians at least momentarily lapsed.78 Those who refused to do so were put to death.

Martyrdom (from martus, a witness) was not a new phenomenon. The executions under Marcus Aurelius had strengthened the faith at a juncture when tolerance would have fostered all manner of off-centre sects, and led to disintegration. Moreover, though Marcus and other pagans might deplore these recalcitrants as exhibitionists (p. 138), their deaths were recorded by their fellow-Christians (in pursuance of Stoic and other pagan models) as precepts and examples.79 This self-immolation was inspired by a death-wish founded upon a desire to purge all guilt by imitating the suffering of Christ. They believed also that their sacrifice, founded upon his, would speed the reconciliation between God and his people. Until the Second Coming, martyrs will be in paradise, and none but they. Happy is the man whom God has devoured, declared Tertullian. ‘The blood of Christians is seed! That very obstinacy which you execrate is a lesson to the world. As there is enmity between the things of God and the things of man, we know that, when we are condemned by you, we are acquitted by God.’80

In Rome, artists and congregations preferred pictures of Christ as powerful Saviour rather than suffering martyr (p. 214). But in more austere circles, particularly in north Africa, Christianity was interpreted as an ordeal which brought triumph against the Devil and the demons who incited the government to persecute. ‘O feet blessedly bound’, cried Cyprian, ‘which are loosed not by the smith but by the Lord!’81 And the faithful threw their clothes on the place where Cyprian himself was to be executed, in the hope that they would soak up his blood. Origen, too, was a zealot for defiant martyrdom as the best means of showing that we aspire to heaven by our deeds.

By this time, shrines of the martyrs had been established, on the analogy of pagan heroes. In Asia Minor, such cults go back to the second century. But most venerated of all was the Roman Martyrium of St Peter, who by at least AD IOO was believed to have been executed by Nero; a shrine (c. 160–70) recently discovered under the Vatican Basilica dedicated to Peter (p. 110) has been identified with the Trophy celebrating his victory over death and paganism, which was seen by a priest at the turn of the third century. From then onwards, liturgical celebrations and memorial services for martyrs became continually more prominent. For ‘where their bones are buried, devils flee as from fire and unbearable torture’.82 The demonstration that Christianity had been found worth dying for made it seem worth living for as well.

A few years after the measures of Decius, Valerian launched a new anti-Christian plan (257–8) He no doubt repeated the patriotic appeal, especially as the military situation was growing even worse –and the loyalty of Christians was suspect after desertions to the Goths who had invaded Pontus. But his motives may have been primarily financial. Church property was an inviting temptation, and the holders of salaried priesthoods had become marked men. When, therefore, Valerian moved against the organisation and corporate life of the church, he not only banished its bishops but also, for the first time, confiscated its meeting places, churches and cemeteries; and he seized the property of prosperous Christians.

But after Valerian had been captured by the Persians, the anti-Christian policy was brought to an end by his son Gallienus.83 That may be why ancient pagan sources regard Valerian as a good emperor and Gallienus a bad one. However, Gallienus’ reversal of the persecution was not due to any personal inclinations towards Christianity; he was more interested in the pagan teachings of Plotinus. But there were Christians at court, and in desperate times of community-strife and near-anarchy Gallienus felt it better to conciliate factions than to identify scapegoats.

Gallienus’ policy of toleration lasted for forty years, and during this time Christianity established itself on an increasingly solid basis. While extension to the rural east produced dissident, fanatical converts (p. 240), the main strength still lay in the lower and middle classes of cities, where shopkeepers, sailors, clerks, small traders, artisans and labourers were members of the faith. The Greek historian Dio Cassius failed to note the growth of Christianity. Tertullian, on the other hand, declared ‘we Christians are only of yesterday, and yet we now fill the world’, and specifically that the Christians already formed almost a majority of the urban populations.84 This was an exaggeration, or a generalisation from a few cases, but important gains could be reckoned. At the Carthage Council of 256 there were 87 north African bishops: fifty years later their number was trebled. Even earlier there were members of the faith – though not very many in high places of the imperial and civil service; there was a sprinkling of Christian intellectuals at Alexandria and elsewhere (p. 210), and by the end of the third century provincial governors belonged to the religion.85 All over the southern and eastern Mediterranean, and especially where there was a noticeable Jewish or Semitic element, the balance was shifting slowly but perceptibly in this direction. The Christians were growing together with Greco-Roman society.

Asia Minor was the land of religious longings where their churches had most quickly established the impetus that led to other successes elsewhere. This Christianity of Asia Minor began in the Greek cities of the western sea-board, and then spread eastwards to the upland peoples. St Gregory the Wonderworker of Neocaesarea (d. c. 272), converted by Origen, used intelligent missionary methods in Pontus and Cappadocia, where he unmasked the spurious character of pagan oracles and cures, and superseded local festivals by equally festive commemorations of Christian martyrs. Yet here, as in Egypt and Syria, expansion into the villages also produced a non-conformist religion of dissent (p. 240). The Egyptian population may have been more than fifty per cent Christian by 300, and these numbers were swollen by new populations of monks (p. 221). Syria and the Levant had expanding churches (piloted by Antioch, Caesarea and Tyre) which for the first time gave Christianity a strong regional cast, founded on new Syriac and Aramaic literatures. Syria was also active in the missionary field, and when a bishop of Antioch consecrated his first colleague at Edessa (Urfa), capital of Osrhoene in Mesopotamia (c. 200), the stage was set for a church which was not only regional but national. For soon afterwards the monarch of that Roman client-state became a Christian convert, and created an ominous precedent by persecuting pagans (p. 239).86 The king was a friend of another convert, Bardaisan (Bardesanes) (154–222). This intellectual Syriac-speaking astronomer and astrologer, who influenced Mani (p. 201), professed so peculiar a form of Christianity – including the doctrine that Christ’s body was an illusion –that he was said to have ‘a legion of demons in his heart and Our Lord on his lips’.87 But in an advanced piece of political thinking, dedicated to Caracalla or Elagabalus, Bardaisan argued that Christian liberty – by which he meant free will – expresses itself through a people’s national characteristics; and although he was not necessarily hostile to Roman imperial ideals, that was the pattern which he superimposed upon them.88

Edessa was prolific in its own brands of theology, and its priests established a bishopric at Arbela (Erbil) across the Tigris. An Armenian poet praised Edessa as ‘the betrothed of the Son of God’.89 For towards the end of the third century Armenia, too, had been converted, by St Gregory the Illuminator, a member of the former Parthian royal family. The king of these disputed Armenian territories who adopted the faith, and endowed it with pagan temples, raised Christianity to the status of an international problem.

Latin-speaking Christianity was comparatively slow to emerge. Then at Carthage it produced the outstanding works of Tertullian (p. 227). Half a century later the north African church, in spite of many a deviant movement, was tolerant, highly organised and supported by wealthy members and a well-travelled clergy. Subsequently, under St Augustine, it was in and through this community that Christian religion took a firm hold upon the western Mediterranean world.

British Christianity was making headway soon after 200. Early in the following century the Spanish church, already foreshadowing its powerful future, provided Constantine with his religious adviser, Hosius of Corduba, and with an ecclesiastical Council (Elvira, 306). In Gaul, second-century Christians had still mainly been Greek-speaking orientals, whose alien origin contributed to their persecution by the Gallic population. At Rome, too, the church used Greek until the third or even fourth century. There may have been about ten thousand Christians at Rome in AD 200, rising to thirty or forty thousand a hundred years later, and perhaps twice the latter total under Constantine.

That seemed nothing like a large enough figure to take over the empire; and the same years witnessed the most formidable of attacks upon the basis of Christianity, launched by Plotinus’ chief pupil Porphyry (d. c. 305).

The quotations that have survived from his fifteen-book work Against the Christians show a force and thrust much superior to previous indictments. St Jerome, one of many who tried to refute his attacks, took them so seriously that he called their author a scoundrel, sycophant, lunatic and mad dog. Nevertheless, Porphyry was a religious man as determined as the Christians to find revelation, redemption and immortality, and prepared even to jettison pagan worship in order to do so.90 Less concerned than his predecessors with Roman patriotic motives,91 Porphyry, being the best orientalist of antiquity, was preoccupied with higher criticism. Here his targets include the genealogy of Jesus, the canon of the New Testament, alleged distortions by the Evangelists, and the theology and personality of St Paul.

Porphyry’s colleague Hierocles was one of the principal instigators of the Great Persecution which now followed (AD 303–13). This was launched by Diocletian and his Caesar Galerius. Either because the government underestimated the strength of the faith or because Christianity possessed friends at court, a start was not made until Diocletian had been in power for nineteen years and Galerius for ten. But when persecution came, its purpose was annihilation. This was a death-struggle of faith against faith, of the old order against the new.

After Diocletian had consulted the Roman gods, the Sibylline books, and the oracle of Apollo at Branchidae (Didyma), edicts began to be announced. The first of them forbade all assemblies of Christians for purposes of worship, and ordered the destruction of their churches and sacred books. Known adherents were dismissed from state employment, including the army in which emperor-cult was a requirement of military discipline. Then followed two further proclamations, limited in operation to the eastern provinces. These were directed solely against the clergy: one edict ordered their arrest, and the other commanded that they should sacrifice to the gods of the state. Finally, a fourth edict extended this order to every member of the Christian faith (304).92 Soon afterwards, Diocletian abdicated his eastern throne in favour of Galerius. Thereupon the latter and his nephew and subordinate Maximinus II Daia called upon governors to enforce upon all men, women, and children their obligation to sacrifice to the gods. The suppression of recalcitrants was intensified, and Maximinus II decreed that everyone, even babies at their mothers’ breasts, should be present at these sacrifices and should taste the victims’ flesh (309).

Yet resistance was unprecedentedly resolute and defiant. There were, inevitably, many renegades, but a considerable number of people were executed. Few of these casualties took place in the west, where Constantine’s father Constantius I Chlorus was no persecutor and took no action except to demolish certain churches. But the main stress fell upon those African and eastern provinces where the tougher peasants, as well as townsmen, were now firm adherents of Christianity. In Palestine, eighty-three executions are recorded, including thirty-two Palestinians and fifty-one Egyptians. In Egypt itself, though we do not possess any such detailed account, there had been political unrest and rebellion, and here the successive blows fell most heavily of all. Perhaps the total number of those who died in all parts of the empire was about three thousand.

In eastern provinces bureaucracy and army joined forces to carry out the anti-Christian measures, which continued, with a few pauses, for ten years. But these were the final bloody acts of the tragedy.93 For as these harrowing years passed, it became clear that the persecution was spent. Times had changed. The pagan communities no longer egged on the authorities with the same ferocity as before. On the contrary, they now regarded the victimisation as exaggerated,94 disliking the Christians (who were not so eccentric as they used to be) rather less than they disliked the totalitarian government which tyrannised the entire population. And so, in circumstances which we cannot reconstruct, Galerius, mortally ill, issued an edict granting freedom of worship to all members of the Christian faith (311). Persecution, declared the dying emperor, had only made them obstinate or caused them to cease worshipping any god at all.

So, in view of our benevolence and the established custom by which we invariably grant pardon to all men, we have thought proper in this matter also to extend our clemency most gladly, so that Christians may again exist and rebuild the houses in which they used to meet, on condition that they do nothing contrary to public order.… In view of this our clemency, they are in duty bound to beseech their own god for our security, and that of the state and of themselves, in order that in every way the state may be preserved in health and they may be able to live free from anxiety in their own homes.95

For the first time, that is to say, Christians were given a measure of legal recognition. Nor does this edict merely allow them to exist: by enjoining them to pray for emperor and state the authorities implicitly recognise their God as a divine power. Nothing definite is said about church property, but Maxentius, the ruler at Rome (306–12), although himself a devoted adherent of patriotic cults and the banisher of two Christian bishops, restored to the church its property that had been confiscated during the persecutions.

In the east, however, Maximinus II Daia, who had now succeeded Galerius, fought a strong rear-guard action against the encroachments of Christianity. He had at first grudgingly accepted the edict of Galerius. But then his attitude changed, and persecution began again. Petitions were received from the municipal authorites at Nicomedia and Tyre and from provincial organisations requesting that their Christian residents should be expelled; and Daia graciously agreed.

If they persist in their damnable folly, let them be thrown out as you requested, and driven right away from your city and neighbourhood, in order that thereby, in accordance with your praiseworthy enthusiasm in this matter, your city may be purged of all contamination and impiety, and in pursuit of its set purpose may with due reverence give itself to the regular worship of immortal gods.… We permit your Dedicatedness to ask whatever munificence you wish in return for this your devout purpose. The fact of its being granted to your city will provide evidence for all time of your devoted piety towards the immortal gods.96

To encourage this repressive action, Maximinus Daia obtained and circulated confessions from prostitutes that they had taken part in Christian orgies. He also directed that spurious anti-Christian Acts of Pilate should be included in school curricula. Executions took place, but they were few, for Maximinus preferred tortures to death-penalties, in order to improve his statistics of apostasy: the obstinate were blinded in one eye and had one leg ham-strung, and were then sent to mines and quarries. But what interested Daia more than such penal measures was the positive establishment of a pagan organisation which would rival and outdo its efficient Christian counterpart. And so he created an elaborate, homogeneous, pagan ecclesiastical system with its own priestly hierarchy.

While this was happening in the eastern provinces, Constantine defeated Maxentius at the battle of the Milvian Bridge outside Rome, and became sole master of the west (312). Constantine was in the midst of his determined but rather confused transition from Sun-worship to the Christian faith (p. 180). Later in life, he told Eusebius that while marching in Gaul, some time before his conquest of Italy, he had seen a cross of light superimposed upon the Sun,97 with the injunction to ‘conquer with this sign’ written in stars about the cross. What he saw may have been a rare natural phenomenon, in which the Sun’s rays look like a cross. Or he may have had one of the trance-like experiences with which the age abounded. But whether it was the one or the other, or a combination of both, or a sign from heaven, the vision stimulated the boldness that Constantine showed in his successful campaign against Maxentius. And it was also reported by Lactantius that, before the Milvian Bridge, he was warned in a dream to inscribe the monogram XP(Christos) upon his soldiers’ shields.

In the east, Constantine had two emperors to deal with –Maximinus Daia in the non-European part of the empire, and his rival Licinius (a friend of the late Galerius) in the Danubian provinces. Professing amicable relations with both, Constantine requested Daia to stop the persecution of the Christians –and gave Licinius his half-sister Constantia in marriage. At the wedding celebrations, Constantine and Licinius published the so-called Edict of Milan, which introduced universal religious tolerance. Constantine then left Maximinus Daia and Licinius to fight it out (313). Daia, defeated, agreed to a tolerant policy just before his death, and Licinius remained emperor of the east as Constantine’s colleague for another eleven years. On the eve of his decisive battle against Maximinus, he too had claimed to have seen an angelic vision. But it was not explicitly Christian; nor was the monotheistic litany which his troops recited three times before the engagement,98 since this was addressed to the Highest Holy God (p. 180).

On Constantine’s side, too, there was still much vague mention of the supreme godhead. Yet before long he explicitly identified the Divine Power with Jesus, spoke of ‘the lawful and most holy’ Christian religion, and initiated over a period of years a series of measures openly granting favour to the Christians. Their priests, other than those of dissident sects (p. 241), were, like those of the Jews, exempted from municipal obligations. But a more decisive step had already been taken when funds (presaging a heavy drain upon the national exchequer) were sent to subsidise provincial churches, for example at Carthage, The lodging of the bishop of Rome or pope changed sharply for the better when he was given the royal palace of the Laterani99 and magnificent new churches. The liturgy borrowed imposing features from official and court ceremonial. Moreover, the church, in keeping with its new privileges, was entrusted with public responsibilities. In spite of the differences between Christian ideas and pagan legal traditions, episcopal courts were given jurisdiction in civil cases (318). People were permitted to bequeath their property to the church, which thus ranked as a civic corporation.100 Finally Constantine himself was baptised, after postponing this, like many Christians, until his deathbed when he could sin no more(p. 217).

Church and state were to be run in double harness. But as the emperor increasingly became aware of his personal mission, the successive Councils of Arelate (314) and Nicaea (325) – the former attended by western, and the latter mainly by eastern bishops –showed that the master was Constantine, to whom the celestial will had committed the government of all things on earth. Consequently membership of the church now meant resignation to the claims of the state, and an extremely oppressive state it was (pp. 63 ff). Since, however, there was going to be an official church, nothing but this enforced subordination could produce the power-structure needed to guarantee that state and church, and the empire with them, would not fall apart. Eusebius, whose Life of Constantineframed the new theory of Christian sovereignty in terms comparing the relationship of the emperor to Jesus with that of Jesus to God the Father,101 felt so anxious not to return to the relative ineffectiveness of earlier Christian institutions, whose persecution by Diocletian even seemed to him deserved and merciful, that he applauded the capitulation of the church to Constantine. St Jerome (d. 420), on the other hand, felt that ‘as the Church increased its influence it decreased in Christian virtues’. And St Augustine, bearing in mind unsavoury aspects of Constantine’s régime, could not fully accept Eusebius’ eulogy of that ruler, reserving unqualified praise for the contemporary monarch Theodosius I (d. 395). It remained for St Ambrose to introduce a new era of intrepid churchmen by rebuking Theodosius. Constantine, too, had been requested by Hosius of Corduba not to interfere in ecclesiastical affairs, but his church did not attempt to compete with the emperor who was the author of its revolutionary transformation.

Constantine felt an impulsive, emotional, exalted need for divine support –of which this faith, with its most satisfying of Saviours, gave a better promise than the various forms of paganism. He or his advisers may also have experienced a growing conviction that Christianity was the only force which could effectively bring together the conflicting social elements of the empire. Nevertheless, this conversion of the state was a rash and remarkable personal venture –one of the apocalyptic acts of history which deny the modern doctrine that everything happens impersonally through tendencies.

A tendency towards the spread of Christianity had existed, but on too small a scale to exercise great effects without vigorous impulsion from above. At Rome the Christian population, although larger than before, still numbered no more than seventy or eighty thousand (p. 233), and relatively few of these people were of political or social significance. The empire became Christian because of the unlikely emergence of a Christian emperor. Without such a Christian ruler on the throne, and a singularly forceful and determined one at that, the conversion of the Roman world, if it had ever happened at all, would have taken a very long time. For example Persia, though its population included many Christians, never had a Christian monarch and consequently never became a Christian state.

The vast majority of Constantine’s subjects were still pagans, and he insisted, in the interests of unity, that his mission was not only to Christians but that he was also bishop of those outside the church. Yet towards these pagans, still firmly entrenched in important positions, his attitude underwent a predictable change. At first he proposed to ‘let those who are in error be free to enjoy the same peace and tranquillity as those who believe’. They were, it is true, required to recite a general monotheistic prayer, and pagan terminology was gradually abolished from official vows. Yet only a few well-known heathen temples were closed down,102 and in two cases this action was ascribed to their unacceptable practice of ritual prostitution. However, the violent anti-pagan tone of Lactantius’ Deaths of the Persecutors (c. 316) suggested that co-existence could not last for long. When Licinius became irritated by the Arian controversy (p, 211) and reintroduced sanctions against Christians in general (320–1), his relations with Constantine grewstrained, and the latter retaliated by showing increased hostility to the pagans. In the year of Licinius’ downfall (324) Constantine passed a severe law against divination. In the eastern regions, which Constantine now added to his western realm, there were in future few provincial governors who did not belong to the Christian faith. Temple treasures were confiscated (331); and finally pagan sacrifices were banned. Nevertheless, it took two more generations for all this pressure to deal paganism its death-blow.

Architecture

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81 Ostia. The theatre was enlarged by Septimius and Caracalla. To its right is the Square of the Corporations, containing the offices of traders from all parts of the empire

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82 The third–and fourth-century ‘House of Cupid and Psyche’, Ostia. As occasionally earlier, brick arches rise straight from the columns without horizontal entablatures

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83 Heliopolis (Baalbek in Lebanon) painted by David Roberts (1796—1864). Temples: left, of Jupiter and the Sun, first century; right centre, of Dionysus (Bacchus), (?) late second century

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84 Beside the Via Appia outside Rome: tomb of the two Rabirii and Usia, chief priestess of Isis, the most popular of pagan cults

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85 The Baptistery of the earliest known Christian church, from Dura-Europos (Mesopotamia), c. 230. Top right: healing of the paralytic, and Christ walking on the water

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86 Like other cities, Rome had to be fortified in the later third century. The Wall of Aurelian (271–5), completed and remodelled by later emperors

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87 Reconstruction of the fortress of Divitia (Deutz), across the Rhine from Cologne. Such defensive systems foreshadow the Middle Ages

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88 The Porta Nigra at Trier (Augusta Trevirorum) on the Moselle, c. 300. The gateway of an imperial capital and almost a fortress-palace in itself

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89 The hot room (caldarium) of the Imperial Baths at Trier: Rome’s universal amenity for its urban populations

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90 This so-called Basilica at Trier, with its medieval-looking recessed window-frames, was the audience hall of the palace of Constantius I

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91 The Basilica of Trier is now a church, but then the emperor sat enthroned beneath the apse of the spacious, timber-roofed hall

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92 The Senate-house of Diocletian Rome, c. 300. Its box-like simplicity, broken only by niches, is already far removed from classical architecture

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93 Salonae (Split in Yugoslavia). The Palace of Diocletian, who received homage beneath the central arch leading to his audience hall. Drawing by Robert Adam (1728–92)

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94 A reconstruction of the Palace of Diocletian at Split, showing the opposite end of the audience hall (at central point of the arcaded sea-front)

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95 Reconstruction of the wrongly named ‘Temple of Minerva Medica’ at Rome, perforated at ground level (right) by a new sort of open, curved recess

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96 The Basilica Nova at Rome, the work of Maxentius (d. 312) and Constantine. The massive vaulted aisles were lit by huge rounded windows that anticipate Romanesque cathedrals

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97 Shapur I’s Persian capital at Ctesiphon on the Tigris had a palace exceeding and preceding Rome in its soaring vaults and decorative arcades. C. 239–70

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98 The Arch of Constantine at Rome, successor to many other triumphal arches, disconcertingly blends contemporary reliefs with sculptures lifted from second-century monuments

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99 In Constantine’s Basilica of St Peter, here shown on a sixteenth-century fresco, apse was divided from nave by a noble transept over the Saint’s traditional burial-place. In the church of S. Martino ai Monti, Rome

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100 A sixteenth-century evocation of the Council of Nicaea (325) which sealed the union of Constantine’s church and state and sought to dispose of the Arian heresy

Meanwhile, the pagans presented Constantine with a less intractable and ominous problem than disobedient fellow-Christians. In 314 he wrote to a high official in north Africa that divine favour was only procurable by united worship which must rise above quarrels and contentions distasteful to the Highest God.103 The church must not only be united with the emperor, but Christians must be united with one another. As Eusebius pointed out, disharmony was a direct invitation to divine chastisement –nothing angers God so much as the division of the church, which is the cutting up of the body of Christ.104

Constantine’s ecumenism was not a defensive closing of the ranks, like its modern counterpart, but a universal missionary attack launched at a time when he had estimated that the tide was running in Christianity’s favour. Moreover, unlike most modern ecumenists, Constantine, as King James I of England appreciatively noted, was influenced by a political motive. For heretical and schismatical deviations, besides calling down the wrath of God, would also by opposing and disobeying the official church which was Constantine’s own instrument create communal anarchy and chaos and consequently thwart the imperial will.

To prevent such divisions the emperor summoned and presided over the Council of Nicaea (325). Its purpose was to reconcile the conflicting interpretations of the godhead by Arius and his enemies (pp. 211, 238) which were disrupting the unity of the church. When agreement had been reached, Constantine did not much care, or perhaps understand, how bishops interpreted it.

And yet unity was still prevented by other grave obstacles, which went far beyond the purely theological field. One of these obstacles was dissenting puritanism. This expressed itself most dramatically in mass-flights into hermitages and monasteries (p. 221). But such a movement, although in its early days hostile to bishops and rulers and society, was not powerful enough to meet with severe official disapproval. Subject to certain controls, monasticism was tolerated as a legitimate outlet for unavoidable tendencies of the day. Nevertheless, even those who remained in their homes were not all pleased by Constantine’s unification of state and church. At the Council of Arelate (314), there was still a feeling that the emperor’s service was hardly compatible with membership of the church.105 The assembled clerics finally decided to the contrary; but it had indeed required a mental and spiritual about-turn to belong to a church which instead of being perpetually proscribed was subsidised and directed from the Lateran palace under the guidance of the emperor. St Jerome’s doubts about the desirability of such a situation echoed a feeling of disquiet that went wide and deep.106

This feeling had ancient roots. Before the official recognition of the church, many Christian writers had detested not only the Roman state but the whole philosophical education in which the Apologists had tried to dress Christianity’s Jewish doctrines (p. 210). For instance, the easterner Tatian in the second century had gloried in Christian ‘barbarity’.107 And he was echoed by Tertullian, who after initially attacking all deviations from official doctrine (c. 197)108 had later identified himself with their most extreme version, Montanism. This New Prophecy was a product of the apocalyptic hysterical cults of Phrygian villages (p. 216), where there had formerly been penitential inscriptions to the pagan god Men. The movement was a rural one rejected by the majority of Christian believers in Asia.109 Yet it spread vigorously to the rustic populations of Syria, Egypt and particularly north Africa, where Tertullian was converted to its ideas.

Hitherto Christianity had been mainly urban, and its extension to country areas raised new problems. The peasantry of the empire, although they provided the bulk of its income, had always been subordinated to town-dwellers and there was a complete lack of sympathy between the two (p. 61). To them, therefore, the new faith meant not only hatred of imperial persecutors but social discontent and dislike of the establishment. This meant that they were also impatient with Christianity in the towns. They found it too formalised, institutionalised and centralised; and they felt that its growing official hierarchy, in order to achieve unified and peaceful progress, had made too many improper and deplorable compromises with the world.

Tertullian’s harsh eloquence also contains a Semitic revulsion, Punic as well as Jewish, from Roman and Greek attitudes towards a burning desert fundamentalism which was the heir of fierce local pagan cults.110 This is a backward plunge to an austere, prophetic church, taking its stand on the Word of God, enthusiastically loathing the world, and yearning for the martyr’s crown. Christianity in northern Africa had never stressed love and mercy. Certainly Montanism did not, since it was more concerned with propitiating divine wrath and with the terror of Judgment. The basis of salvation, said Tertullian, is Fear.111

A breach between these puritans and the main Christian church in north Africa was caused by the persecution under Septimius. St Calixtus, pope and bishop of Rome, was opposed for allowing renegades, who had given way to official pressure, to return to the fold. And then again after the persecution of Decius, Novatian – no doubt to the satisfaction of the government with its policy of divide and rule –led a schismatic Roman congregation which refused to be polluted by such apostates (251). He gained powerful backing at Antioch and elsewhere in Syria and was substantially supported by Asia Minor’s humble populations who, being inconspicuous and having little to lose, had not been so severely tempted to fall away from their faith, and were therefore out of sympathy with the urban middle-classes who had done so. Elderly Montanists supported Novatian, and both his sect and theirs continued to maintain their primitive martyr-worshipping churches for centuries.

While the persecutions of Decius and then Valerian were followed by four decades of tolerance, these dissenting rural Christians in the oriental provinces and north Africa increased markedly in numbers. As in the days of Tertullian, north Africa was the scene of the next outburst, and its occasion was again a wave of official repression. A newly elected bishop of Carthage was denounced by his colleagues from the less sophisticated regions of Numidia, because he was opposed to the deliberate seeking-out of martyrdom. The second of two rival bishops successively put forward in his place was Donatus. Like a contemporary sect in Egypt, the Donatists to whom he gave his name completely denied humanist, urban, traditional culture, and at the same time rejected the sovereignty of the church. Constantine, regarding these Donatists as irreconcilable enemies of the unity which was his aim, excluded them from the subsidies distributed to Christian churches. In spite of endless argument, the attitudes of the two sides took irreversible political shape, for and against the government (316). After Constantine’s dismissal of repeated appeals, the Donatists asked the new and crucial question of the day: what has the emperor to do with the church? And he for his part, tougher against Christian splinter-groups than against pagans, confiscated their churches and banished their bishops. The Donatists began to form a calendar of martyrs of their own.

Five years later military suppression was abandoned in favour of a scornful tolerance. For when his unfriendly eastern colleague Licinius was goaded by Arian defiance into reviving persecution (p. 238), Constantine thought it best that he himself, by way of contrast, should not punish disobedient Donatists, but should leave their punishment to God. Yet an ominous tradition was already established: Christianity, as soon as it became official, had begun to persecute Christians. In the east, too, Constantine confiscated the churches of the various sects, and forbade them to hold services.112 The doctrine of the church as a unity meant that, unlike Judaism, it was a universal and missionary institution; and this in turn indicated that it must forcibly absorb nonconformists. However, far from achieving the desired unity, these measures of coercion which Constantine felt obliged to initiate produced as their heritage many centuries of hatred between one Christian and another, exploding often into lethal bloodshed.

Despite further persecutions,113 Donatism continued to flourish until, after the Arian interlude which intervened in every principal barbarian kingdom in the west, Arab conquests during the eighth century suppressed all forms of Christianity in north Africa.113The Donatists had not, like Constantine’s church, set out to be universal proselytisers. But they claimed the right to defend their separate identity as preservers of a divinely given law. They were also a social-revolutionary movement, attracting fugitive slaves and destitute peasants. Inscriptions from village churches in Numidia repeat texts hailing Christianity as a refuge from the toils and sorrows of the world. There was a Donatist left-wing composed of anarchic, millennium-seeking Vagabonds (Circumcelliones). The Donatist leaders, it is true, spoke and wrote in Latin. But on the whole the sect flourished less in the towns, where its persecutors were too strong, than in country areas such as the high plains of Algeria, from which puritanical brands of Islam likewise came to draw their strength. The Donatists were jealous of civilised towns; and, because they also felt hostility to the ruling cultures, they were strongest in regions where the native Berber and Punic elements prevailed.

This then, in a variety of ways, was a religion of protest. Towards its adherents Constantine had at first shown patience. But when that was exhausted, the more forcible methods that followed contradicted his unifying intentions, pointing the way instead to the Protestant tradition which came to its full stature twelve hundred years later.

Another fundamental breach in this unity, however, had already begun to take effect not in the sixteenth century but in the fifth and sixth: namely the rupture between the Catholic Church, centred upon Rome, and the Orthodox Church based on Constantinople. And this division too, though it had perhaps become inevitable by the time of Constantine, was involuntarily hastened by him–when he founded Constantinople.

While this was being planned, the Council of Nicaea declared Rome, Alexandria and Antioch to be patriarchal sees (325). The eastern centres contested Roman supremacy; but Rome had long enjoyed particular respect. Already, before AD 100 its pope or bishop had intervened, for example, in the affairs of Corinth. In the following century the church at Carthage was conscious of dependence on Rome, and the Roman community felt aware of its own special significance.114 One reason why other churches looked to the church of Rome was because of its fateful and responsible position in the imperial capital. And yet, as the empire began to change its character and Rome gradually lost political and economical power, its abstract, eternal status, among Christians as among pagans, was not diminished but enhanced (p. 164). Already in the later second century Irenaeus put forward the superior claims of the church of Rome on grounds of the apostolic succession. Pointing out that the main body of the church owed its supremacy over deviations to a direct chain of authority extending from the apostles to bishops of his own day, he indicated that in Rome this unbroken continuity went back to St Peter, who was Christ’s leading apostle, and to St Paul; and that at Rome, accordingly, will be found the pure doctrine with which other communities should agree.115 A much revered martyr’s shrine of St Peter dates back to the same period (p. 231).

Eastern communities admitted the special distinction of the church of Rome, but they were much more reluctant to admit that this body had any right to legislate for them on doctrine or organisation. They did not share the increasing western tendency to eliminate laymen from church government. It was also their belief that ecclesiastical authority is not vested in any one person, but belongs by scriptural direction to each bishop (in spite of ‘precedence of honour’ to a few holders of historic sees), and expresses itself through all of them united in their general councils (p. 228).

But Romans and Greeks, in many matters beside religion, had never liked each other or understood each other’s attitudes. The admiration which educated Romans such as Cicero professed for past Hellenic culture was rarely extended to its living exponents, and most Greeks of all periods detested the richer, more powerful and coarser Romans whose financial aid they so often sought. In spite of conciliatory efforts by a few imaginative thinkers such as Virgil on the one side, and by pro-Roman Greek leaders on the other, the gap widened. Moreover the bilingual educated man was becoming very rare (p. 116). These difficulties extended into ecclesiastical affairs. The Roman church had at first been thoroughly Greek. But after Hippolytus (d. c. 236) there were no more spokesmen of this Greek-speaking Christianity at Rome; Novatian wrote in Latin, and by the fourth century Greek had ceased to be the language of the liturgy. Few eastern churchmen spoke Latin at all – and they did not see why they should, since the New Testament had been written in Greek and they felt themselves to be the repositories of its truth.

There were, accordingly, both psychological and linguistic reasons why western and Greek Christians should fail to understand each other’s point of view. A quarrel over the celebration of Easter impelled a Roman bishop (pope) St Victor (d. c. 199), contrary to the wishes of Irenaeus, to break with the churches of Asia Minor. Matters came to a head when St Stephen (254–6) was prompted by a dispute regarding baptism to claim subordination of all churches to Rome in view of the primacy conferred upon St Peter, whose tradition had now become fully established at the capital (p. 231). Firmilian of Caesarea replied denying any legal pre-eminence to Peter or his successors, and maintaining that every bishop is the successor of the Apostles.116 For the Greeks could not share the legal centralised autocratic approach which the Romans owed to their training and to the juridical moulding their faith had received from lawyers such as Tertullian. Nor did the Romans, for their part, appreciate the Hellenic, philosophising tendencies of the Apologists (p. 210) which were so strong in Greek lands. The east enacted creeds; the west discipline.117

Aurelian strengthened the church of Rome by supporting it in a dispute relating to the bishopric of Antioch. But the differences between east and west were accentuated and perpetuated by Constantine’s foundation of Constantinople. The removal of the imperial government away from Rome had already given the head of the Roman church far greater opportunities for independence and civil authority than he had possessed hitherto. But now the presence of the emperor at Constantinople began to raise the patriarch of that place also to a peculiar importance of his own, which, although the initial privileges of the new city were limited (p. 99), was in due course recognised by a precedence second only to Rome (381). Already two decades earlier, the new city had been described as ‘a bond of union between east and west to which the most distant extremes from all sides come together, and to which they look up as the common centre and emporium of the faith’.118

But this was too optimistic in view of the disputes which followed. They were concerned with clerical celibacy, the Fall of Man, and the nature of the Holy Ghost. The east, as always, stressed the singleness of the supreme deity, and the west emphasised the divinity of Jesus (p. 212).119Constantine’s elevation of Constantinople to be the imperial capital had sharpened long-standing cultural, psychological and linguistic differences. The result was not the religious unity for which he had hoped, but a major breach between Catholicism and Orthodoxy which has lasted until now; just as his attitude to the Donatists, and their attitude to him, foreshadowed that other major breach which was to result in separate Protestant churches. The effect of Constantine’s ecumenical drive was, paradoxically, not unity but lasting Christian division – productive of all the weakness of disunion, and all the devout vigour of separate loyalties.

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