As we discussed last time, Christianity as a religion began as a piddling little backwater offshoot of Judaism that whizzed together elements from the popular religions and philosophies of the age with an apocalyptic vision and all-or-nothing fervor. Its evangelists competed hard for followers and resources in a culture marked by a huge diversity of beliefs and gods. Because its leaders completely lacked the power to coerce people into joining and staying Christian, however, it wasn’t making that much progress. It would take a series of events in the fourth century to bring it not only to legitimacy, but dominance.
Today, we’ll just be covering how it went from a disreputable little fringe cult to a legally-acceptable religion in the Roman Empire. It’s a wild ride!
By the end of the third century, Christian leaders had managed to cobble together a decent number of believers, but if one term could sum up their religion at that point, it would be splintered. They didn’t have a uniform body of documents (and no uniform copy of any of those documents, not even the Gospels; you can see a few of the inconsistencies here); some didn’t even really use the Old Testament at all. Others were way more Jewish than others. There were different ways of seeing Jesus, some more human than divine; there were wildly divergent ways of seeing non-believers and gentiles (non-Jewish people) and very differing notions about even what rituals should be performed and how they should be handled in the fledgeling religion. Name a doctrine, and you’ll find disagreement about it in those early years.
Many Christians today think of this period as a happy time of cohesion and exponential growth. Nothing could be further from the truth. It wasn’t much different from what we see today, really. There was never a golden age of Christian unity and growth–at least, not until it gained the power to coerce.
(Nota bene: Sometimes it’s not easy to see what really happened in this era. Much of its history was dreamed up entirely, buried, or mangled by opportunistic, sales-oriented Christians, who had quite a lot to gain from such distortion.)
The Myth of Persecution.
Christians tend to believe that their religion faced intense persecution from the political leaders from the religion’s inception because it was just so incredibly radical and amazing thanks to Jesus Power. It’s made them rather gun-shy about persecution even today, and they tend to cite the beginnings of their religion as the reason for their over-abundance of caution (which oddly requires them to have power over non-believers). This belief also leads them to do all kinds of weird things trying to get back to that imagined happy time, back to that practice of pure, real, TRUE Christianity before Catholics and politics muddled it all up.
I myself fell victim to this thinking–and it very nearly led me to join a cult in Waco right before that whole David Koresh incident took place. I’d thought my whole life up to then that living as “Biblically” as possible would lead to greater harmony and security, but it turns out that the whole idea is a myth that never happened–which might explain why every effort people make to recreate that lifestyle turns out absolutely disastrously.
The reality of the situation is far more depressing (for Christians at least). Christianity wasn’t really very persecuted. Far from being the dangerously radical powerhouse of ideas that threatened and challenged people the world over, it was generally regarded as a nuisance and a threat to the social order. As Candida Moss writes in The Myth of Persecution, there really wasn’t much persecution at all going on, and what there was, was generally not based on the Christians’ religious faith but rather other factors. (Sound familiar?)
The truth was, Christians were more annoying than anything else. They were regarded with some suspicion because they kept to themselves, criticized the venerable traditions of Rome, refused to take part in public rituals, and avoided public office. I’m sure their love for proselytization didn’t go over very well, either–as we might also guess from how some families disinherited children who became Christian, though that might have just been a protective measure meant to prevent those children from passing on their inherited wealth and lands to their churches upon their own deaths.
Certainly there’d been some small, generally localized persecutions of them; people sometimes made demands of their governors to do something about them, but there’s little indication that these petitions came to much. Some folks think Nero persecuted Christians after blaming them for the Great Fire of Rome. Tacitus certainly thought so. He’d been a kid during that time, so may well have witnessed some of this stuff he describes so luridly. Another writer from about the same time, Suetonius, links the persecution instead to Christians’ excessive religiosity and possibly the practice of a sort of black magic. Later on, another emperor, Septimius Severus, forbade citizens to convert to either Christianity or Judaism in 202 CE, sparking new waves of martyr wannabes that mostly went frustrated.
One of those persecutions involved an edict made by Emperor Decius in 250 CE (the year after he became emperor). Sensing that his empire was beginning to wilt, he’d decided to rejuvenate Rome. He restored the Colosseum and some of the classical offices like censor, trying to spark a new golden age (which means that yes, I’m totally saying that he was clearly trying to accrue Happiness points). The edict was an attempt to enforce an empire-wide loyalty oath more than anything else. It required that all citizens go sacrifice to and worship the Roman gods, gaining a certificate called a libellum from a witnessing magistrate to prove they’d done it.
Obviously, Christians didn’t want to do that. Their growing feeling that they were different from Jews–a new religion distinct from Judaism–but still beholden to some of its parent religion’s rules is largely what formed their subsequent problem. Ever since Julius Caesar, Jews had been exempt from these kinds of demands (though they did pay a tax for belonging to the religion), and indeed they were exempt from this one and likely very relieved to be so. In the same way as the Jews so many of them still felt kinship with, Christians refused to do anything that might even vaguely look like worshiping foreign gods; it was one of the few things they could generally agree upon. But they no longer had the same status as a legally-permitted religion in the Empire precisely because they had so deliberately separated themselves from Judaism. The near-universal freedom of religion offered by Rome did not apply to them.
Refusing the edict meant death, naturally. In the short year or two that it was actually enforced, it left an eternal, indelible mark on Christians’ memory–and was quickly spin-doctored into an actual bona fide persecution for the sake of their faith, even though the edict wasn’t specifically targeting them at all.
An important note: Christian leaders had a very tough time forcing their followers to either flee, go into hiding, or defy the edict and thereby face execution. Thousands of Christians capitulated–in effect rendering themselves apostates–by performing the ceremonies and getting the required libellum afterward. Christian groups had to figure out how they would respond to those apostates: would they shun them, as the Donatists encouraged? Or allow them back, as other groups advised (including the traditionalists that were becoming the Roman Catholic Church)? The question became yet another splinter in the sea of toothpicks that was Christianity. (Edit: I got that backwards initially; this error has been corrected. — CC)
Many of the Christians who did resist the edict did so because they sought martyrdom for its own sake (some went further, attacking pagan temples to provoke their local government into action against them). Early Christian leaders like Tertullian (155-240 CE, considered the founder of Western theology and one of the first apologists–and the first person we know for sure to discuss the Trinity) taught that martyrdom was like the Fast Pass to Heaven–while everyone else had to sleep until the final Judgment to get in, martyrs were allowed instant admission. This teaching quickly made martyrdom a hotly-desired commodity. But Roman political leaders themselves were not usually very keen on the idea of indiscriminately murdering dissidents.
The Darkest Hour.
Diocletian, who came to power in 284, decided to institute a new form of government. After some tinkering, the Empire ended up with two senior emperors (singularly called properly an Augustus) and two junior emperors (singularly called a Caesar), with a senior-junior pair each running half of the Empire–yes, like the Sith except there were two sets of them. This arrangement was called a tetrarchy. Diocletian, who had of course made himself a senior emperor, began with the other senior emperor a project that would soon be called The Great Persecution, which effectively lasted until about 305 but is popularly reckoned as lasting until 311.
Diocletian completely rescinded Christians’ legal rights and demanded they make sacrifices to Roman gods under pain of imprisonment and execution. Churches were razed, holy books confiscated, adherents’ land taken, and ranks revoked. Christian clergy who agreed to make sacrifices gained amnesty; some actually accepted, while others were forced into it. Thousands of them apostatized. A lot of the details here come to us from Eusebius, who is far from an impartial historian, so there may be some embellishment or exaggeration involved. Still, it sounds like a bad time.
Diocletian was a very conservative man who thought that the gods of his time would bless the empire again if he could only force everyone to live moral lives again. That especially meant reforming the weird Christian cultists into something more respectable. (Sound familiar?)
There probably wasn’t much for Christians to feel optimistic about, consequently.
But a little light was dawning for the cult.
The sheer ruthlessness of the edicts may have ironically formed Christianity’s biggest hope. The cult had by now existed for centuries–struggling, splintering, arguing, bickering–but by the beginning of the fourth century it had adherents at all levels of society, from the rural villages in the British Isles to the very household of the Emperor himself. It was no longer the obscure, bizarre Jewish offshoot that it had been once. It possessed churches aplenty, paid for by wealthy congregants. One historian estimates that some 10% of the population was Christian, though another disputes that number and claims it was closer to 1% or less. That’s still a lot of Christians.
By the time Diocletian and Maximian resigned in 305 as senior emperors, moving Constantius and Galerius into their places from the junior ranks, they probably thought they’d settled Christians’ hash for good.
They were wrong.
As separate as they’d always tried to be from society, Christians were still rubbing elbows with neighbors and family members, who’d clearly gotten more used to them as a group than they’d once been. These “peculiar people” had lost their weirdness factor. People weren’t quite as willing to believe the urban legends about Christians as they once had. And Romans’ famous tolerance for other faiths had, over the years, begun reasserting itself.
Further, nobody had the energy anymore to spare to bother Christians. The constant wars and civil unrest Rome faced, a serious economic depression, and the more or less complete breakdown of educational and social systems meant that a religion promising both miraculous aid in this life and a glorious Heaven after death might well have sounded a lot more appealing to desperate people than it had long ago–especially people taught to see their lot in life as a reflection of how well they’d chosen their gods. (Again… sound familiar?)
In the wake of all that upheaval in Roman society, as Richard Carrier argues, Christians may well have been the only real cohesive society left–as ironic as that sounds after centuries of arguing and division. They’d always tailored their apocalyptic message to the groups that were most likely to be hit hard by that upheaval, and now more people were joining those groups by the day. Christians had always tried to be separate from the political and social systems of their areas, and now that separation meant that they weren’t hit quite as hard by the deterioration of those systems.
As a result of these factors, Diocletian’s edicts didn’t gain a lot of traction except in scattered areas. Over in the British Isles, Constantius barely did anything to support the new laws.
Constantius’ son was Constantine–yes, that Constantine–and Constantine had another reason to oppose the persecution.
A Wild Savior Appears.
Constantine was an experienced military leader who had campaigned extensively for the various emperors. He certainly knew about the persecutions of Diocletian, but we don’t have any evidence about him participating in them (or opposing them, though he claimed to have done so later in life). He was thought to be quite tolerant himself of other religions, so wasn’t likely to be eager to destroy Christians.
(Some of that tolerance might come about because his own mother, Helena, may have converted to Christianity herself early on. Eusebius himself credits Constantine with converting his mother, but we needn’t feel compelled to take his word for the matter.)
Everyone must have thought that Constantine and Maxentius (the son of Emperor Maximian) would be shoo-ins for junior emperor when Diocletian and Maximian resigned and the two current junior emperors, Constantius and Galerius, moved up to senior, but no, instead two other guys became junior emperors–skipping over the sons of Constantius and Maximian, to the anger of both the sons and the fathers. Severus, one of Galerius’ good friends, and Maximinus Daia, one of Galerius’ nephews, became junior emperors instead.
And just like that, Constantine, who was by now living in Galerius’ court as a near-hostage, realized that his life was in serious danger.
Thankfully, his father, Constantius, quickly saw the problem and asked Galerius for his son’s military help in Britain. Galerius, drunk as a skunk and in an amiable mood, as the story goes, surprisingly agreed to the request, and Constantine immediately fled before the emperor could wake up from his stupor and change his mind.
When Constantius died in Britain in 306, Constantine sent the infuriated Galerius his father’s death notice along with his own declaration that he was now taking for himself the title of senior Emperor (with a portrait of himself in official Imperial robes, no less–talk about cheek!). After a period of wrangling, Galerius agreed to make Constantine a junior emperor, which the young man accepted. He was made the ruler of Britain, Gaul, and Spain. By 310 he was minting coins with himself endorsed by Mars and Sol Invictus (a form of Apollo).
There was some civil unrest and back-and-forth, however, mostly centering on Maxentius, who was very sore about having been overlooked in the succession. He had declared himself emperor just like Constantine had, but Galerius had recognized only the claim made by Constantine. Maxentius had already captured and executed Severus and defeated his army when they’d tried to come for him, and now he was ready to face Constantine head-on.
The famous vision that Constantine supposedly got about Christianity was had while he faced Maxentius’ much larger army in 312 in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (it crosses the Tiber River in Rome). Eusebius–that name again!–relates an altogether mythical account of the vision and adds all kinds of florid details. Whatever the vision was, Constantine’s very earthly skill at commanding troops won the day in spades. Maxentius himself drowned in the Tiber during his tattered army’s retreat.
Constantine, the victor, now owned the Western Roman Empire and would soon have the rest of it.
The next year, in February 313, he and his fellow emperor Licinius (the ruler of the Eastern half of the empire–and another friend of Galerius, who’d died in 311) issued the Edict of Milan, which legalized Christianity at last.
Now, Galerius–right before his death–had already issued the Edict of Toleration, which officially ended the persecution of Christians. The Edict of Milan went a lot further, granting Christianity full legal status as an allowed religion, releasing Christian prisoners and mine-workers, and even returning some of the Christians’ confiscated property, ranks, and wealth. It granted total religious freedom to all citizens, moreover, not just the followers of Christianity.
But why did Constantine do it? Why not leave the religion proscribed, or at least illegitimate?
What It Probably Wasn’t.
The edict probably wasn’t a sign of conversion to Christianity on Constantine’s part, though Eusebius–dammit, Eusebius!–claimed that it was. Oh, he did convert at some point–but we don’t know exactly when, nor how sincere he was at first. A lot of what we think we know of his life as a Christian is very likely the product of Eusebius’ mythmaking.
Nor was the edict evidence of a real live vision sent by the Christian god before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. If Constantine had one at all, he may well have interpreted it as a symbol of Apollo, a god he’d always favored anyway. There might not even have been a vision at all; Eusebius is rather fond of these sorts of inventions and exaggerations, and other sources aren’t at all consistent with his account. There are also doubts about how common the symbol was among Christians.
All told, there doesn’t seem to be anything divine about the entire incident, and certainly not enough to explain a sudden, heartfelt conversion and repudiation of every religious ideal that Constantine had ever held dear. The fact that he continued to support both paganism and Christianity until almost the end of his life speaks to him not quite being the true-blue Christian that many Christians think he was.
The More Likely Scenario.
Emperors and other local rulers had long gained and retained popularity by favoring or persecuting various groups. (Sound familiar?) Galerius and Diocletian had viciously suppressed Christianity, and Constantine was both men’s dread enemy. None of the emperors were particularly friendly to Christianity; most were openly hostile to it. Obviously Constantine would have felt inclined to reverse whatever course they’d plotted.
His own motivations in legitimizing Christianity were probably way more pragmatic than Eusebius would have liked. He saw himself as a sort of revival of classical Roman ideals and values, and tolerance was one value that had been lost somewhere along the way.
He might also have noticed the religion’s growing popularity and his subjects’ growing distaste for persecuting Christians. Legitimizing Christianity was a move that recognized what popular culture was already saying: that this religion was gaining in legitimacy at least on an informal basis, that its adherents were starting to come from the best families in the Empire, and (most importantly!) that it was a possible force that political rulers could use to their advantage. Keeping it off-limits and marginalized would aggravate those elite families who’d joined it–and would keep the religion out of the toolbox of the Emperor.
In any case, once legitimized, Christianity gained a lot of credibility with people shopping for a new religion. And eventually Constantine seemed very excited about growing the Kingdom on Earth, which he did by building churches all over the place, ordering Bibles to be delivered to the church in Constantinople, sending his fervent mother on relic-hunting expeditions, and a lot of other shows of support and piety (not all of them 100% savory). But he also allowed non-Christian temples to be built and non-Christian rituals to be performed in the Empire, at least for a while, and many of his top administrators were non-Christian.
So the Edict of Milan capped off three centuries of internal discord and intermittent external suppression–finally giving Christians the status of belonging to a legitimate, allowed, completely acceptable Roman religion. Though they’d hardly have thought of persecution as a lucky break, what happened in Diocletian’s day was actually one of the best things that could have happened to Christianity. (And we should be hearing the caution bell that this period of history represents!)
In just a few short years, that shift to legitimacy would go even further–into a monopoly and complete dominance of the Western World. We’ll take up there next time–see you then!
Stay warm and drive safe out there–I’m getting snowed in as we speak! Yikes!