Reading Time: 10 minutes Soon only ruins shall be left... (Greg_Men, CC-ND.)
Reading Time: 10 minutes
The remains of the enormous Imperial palace complex in Milan. (By I, Lorenzo Fratti, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia.)

We’ve been talking lately about the early history of Christianity and how different it is from the history offered up by most Christian apologists and leaders. This definitely is not a history I learned growing up Catholic or as a fundamentalist lass! If anything, it’s even more fascinating to me than the fictionalized version–and shows me that Christianity really only succeeded because it gained the power to force people to convert and then stay converted. Here’s how Christian leaders moved from being barely-tolerated to fiercely dominant in the fourth century.

After hundreds of years as an offshoot cult of Judaism, a cult that was by turns barely tolerated and intermittently persecuted by the Roman Empire, Christians faced their worst challenge yet when Diocletian issued a series of edicts at the end of the 3rd century that, among other things, stripped them of their rights as Roman citizens, revoked their titles, confiscated their lands, destroyed their churches, and demanded that they make sacrifices to Roman gods–with the penalty for disobedience being imprisonment, forced labor, and execution. This persecution wasn’t by any means universal–in the western end of the Empire, especially, many rulers didn’t enforce the edicts at all–but it did a great deal of damage.

Christians gained legitimacy at last with the Edict of Milan in 313. This edict gave Christianity the status of a legally-recognized religion in the empire–and allowed all people the freedom of religion. A few short decades later, though, we see Christianity going from a legitimized religion to being the only permitted religion. Politics and religion got in bed together to spawn something far uglier than either one of them.

Dissension in the Ranks.

I don’t see any reason to suspect that the Edict of Milan was anything but an attempt by Constantine to put right what he saw as a problem (in various ways: causing instability, losing the plot with regard to Roman values, and angering a powerful new god) and move himself forward as the good guy in the religion culture war. He seems to have seen himself as the patron of all accepted Roman religions, a position he upheld by helping all of them succeed and flourish. I do see that he seemed to start leaning Christian fairly early on. Very soon after becoming emperor, he began building a new capital that became Constantinople–and it was very overtly Christian, with churches built in it from the start. And thanks to this care, the religion began to grow by leaps and bounds.

With the encouragement granted to them by legitimization and imperial attention, Christians got back to doing what they have always done best: arguing.

The main problem was a growing difference of opinion regarding exactly what Jesus was: was he divine or was he man? Was he lower in rank than “God” or equal or better? Traditionalists maintained that Jesus was one with what they understood as God the Father, which became known as the Trinitarian view. Arians followed the lead of a contemporary Egyptian presbyter named Arius (250-336), who thought that Jesus, as the Son of God, was clearly a created being who was subordinate to his father. (There were even Semi-Arians who thought that Jesus wasn’t created or uncreated. Seriously, it sounds like it was exactly like today’s interdenominational bickering.)

Arianism spread very quickly through the Christian world. Most people had some opinion about it, even laypeople. Today we’re used to these disagreements and they don’t cause too much consternation outside their own narrow confines. But this one occurred when the religion was still getting its bearings. Over time, Arian Christians developed their own religious rites, including their own more-or-less canonical collection of holy books, rituals, and customs (including allowing priests to marry). And they weren’t even the only growing groups of dissenters. There’d never been a lot of consistency or cohesion among Christian groups, but now that they were all allowed to exist and congregate at will, they were all growing in power and insistence.

Some of these disagreements were very important, being that they affected who was allowed to join a group, who was allowed to lead it, when they’d meet, and what they’d do in the meetings. Holy days weren’t consistent, and neither were the expectations for priests. Various schools of heresy were set to become their own separate–and competing–flavors of Christianity, and that could not fly.

At first, the emperor was content to simply ask the two opposing sides to work it out. He tried sending a bishop around to resolve the theological dispute. This tactic worked about as well as it would today, which is to say not at all. Christians continued to argue so damned hard and so stridently that finally Constantine demanded that the leaders of the religion meet together to get their doctrines figured out once and for all. This meeting, held in 325, was called the Council of Nicea because it met in, well, Nicea.

The Council of Nicea.

In 325, every diocese in the entire Roman Empire sent bishops, deacons, and other representatives to Nicea (in modern-day Turkey) to attend this council. About the only VIP who didn’t attend was the pope himself, who was too old to travel. Arius showed up with his own representatives, too, to argue for their own side.

Constantine the Great, from a mosaic in the Hagia Sophia. (Istanbul, Turquie) (Public Domain, Wikimedia.)
Constantine the Great, from a mosaic in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. (Public Domain, Wikimedia.)

Constantine considered the conflict important enough to preside over it himself. This wasn’t the first time he’d sat in on a dispute–he’d tried to help figure out the Donatists a few years before. This earlier dispute was still ongoing, and it’d set a precedent of religious leaders appealing to him to settle their doctrinal differences. But Arianism was a much bigger threat, with the stakes much higher.

The council lasted for two solid months, with their main focus being the Arian controversy–they tried to hammer out some other questions, but that was the main one. Both sides, of course, had plenty of Bible verses to back themselves up. And both sides got pretty heated. (This part ought to sound familiar to anybody who’s ever been a Christian and argued doctrines with another Christian. Granted, modern doctrinal squabbles don’t usually involve the slapping that this one reportedly did. Usually.) The council ended with Arianism being completely repudiated even by most of Arius’ supporters, meaning that  Jesus was declared to be consubstantial with the Father and Spirit and definitely not a created subordinate being in any way. Satisfied with this outcome, Constantine denounced Arius in a proclamation that declared that Arian writings needed to be burned or their owners would be executed.

This council also created the Nicene Creed, which most Catholics could likely recite by heart (even an ex-Catholic like me can manage it with prompting!). I probably recited this creed hundreds of times, but never noticed exactly what it said. Now, looking at it, I notice those anti-Arian elements right off the bat: “Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father. . . begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father. Through him all things were made.” Back in the fourth century, this creed would have been a mic dropped against a heresy that had threatened the cohesion of the entire religion.

Nowadays, even in a country as Christian-centric as the United States, we might marvel at the idea of a political leader stepping into a religious dispute like Constantine did–and writing a proclamation like the one he issued. But at the time, it wasn’t unusual at all. He would have seen himself as very much a religious leader–as a sort of priest-king who was ready for the task of resolving these kinds of arguments to keep the peace in his empire. Constantine himself came from a culture well-used to seeing emperors as divine beings (often even elevated to the status of gods), irrevocably intertwining the political and religious sphere. He might not even have seen a difference in those two areas of life.

Constantine might well have wanted a nice uniformity of Christianity like the one he’d just achieved in his political life. After a lifetime of wrangling over the rulership of the Roman Empire, he had finally gotten rid of his rival Licinius the year before in a couple of decisive victories in battle. At last he had the entire Empire to himself, with the last claimant captured and awaiting his mercies (which would be none too tender–in 325 Licinius was hanged).

The kind of Christianity that Constantine had bought into himself happened to be one that used the Old Testament to describe how a government should entwine religious and civic spheres. (Remember, not all Christian groups even used the Old Testament–there wasn’t any kind of consensus about which books should even go into their holy canon yet, though that was coming quickly.) So he saw nothing at all weird or wrong with using public funds to build churches, copy Bibles and distribute them, and go relic-hunting. Under Constantine, Christian churches grew and flourished in a sort of partnership–with Christians ultimately obedient to their rulers as representatives of their very god, and the ruler tasked with leading his people both physically and spiritually.

It’d be a long, long time before much changed in that respect. Even today, elected presidents wouldn’t dream of reciting their Oath of Office without first putting their hand on a Bible. Clearly, humanity just has an affection for the idea of kings who are also the ultimate religious authority.


Some of the Christian leaders at the Council of Nicea had survived the persecutions of Diocletian’s edicts years ago. It must have been mind-blowing for them to go from being hunted and imprisoned to standing in front of a sympathetic Emperor to argue doctrines and determine the future course of their religion. No doubt they considered this striking shift a miracle straight from Heaven.

Now that they were safe from political persecution and were flourishing under the Emperor’s care, Christian leaders could finally turn their attention to consolidating their power bases. Of prime importance was the establishment of a single canon of rites, holy writings, and creeds. The Council of Nicea had started that task by not only forcefully rejecting Arianism but also setting guidelines for things like Sunday worship and when to celebrate Easter.

Constantine bestowed a number of practical benefits on the religion by issuing a number of decrees giving Christian clergy various powers, including judicial ones. Bishops in particular became interchangeable with secular judges, and people involved in lawsuits could request either one to hear a case. He also set limits on who could own Christian slaves. Take a look at that list–it’s quite broad!

After Constantine’s death in 337 (at the ripe old age of 65!), he left the Empire to his three sons and two nephews in a complicated arrangement that didn’t last very long. The brothers managed to slaughter most of the rest of the possible successors over the next few years. None of them seemed to be able to escape getting sucked into the Arian argument over and over again, and they all passed a variety of laws further extending Christianity’s power in the civic sphere and granting various special rights to its clergy.

The middle of the fourth century was a long struggle toward standardization, much of it helmed by a priest named Athanasius. He became such a big part of the fight that his faction, the one that became Catholicism, is sometimes called the Athanasian faction (or, simply, Nicene Christianity since it followed the Nicene Creed). He had taken part in the Council of Nicea as a young man (opposing Arianism) and was exiled and brought out of exile several times according to the prevailing imperial leaning.

Emperors came and went frequently. They faced turmoil with various pagan barbarian tribes in the political sphere, and ongoing doctrinal disagreements in the religious one. During one of his last exiles, Athanasius wrote one of his last big worksDiscourses Against the Arians. In it, he outlined what he thought should be the correct set of beliefs. A few years later, in 367, he wrote what he thought was the definitive list of New Testament books. That list is basically the one most Christians use today.

Arianism was starting to fall out of favor, but Athanasius died in 373, before Catholics finally officially won that fight.

Win they would, and when they finally did, that win was big.

Religion Turns Ugly.

In 380, Emperor Theodosius I came to power. He himself was a very fervent Christian who followed the Nicene Creed. He issued a decree called the “Edict of Thessalonica” that declared that the Nicene form of Christianity was the only legitimate form of the religion, that it was also the Imperial religion, and that it was the only one that would be accepted as properly Catholic. The edict rejected Arianism in the strongest possible terms, calling its adherents and other dissenters “foolish madmen” who would “be branded with the ignominious name of heretics.” And he promised that these “foolish madmen” would be punished both by his god and himself.

A couple of days after arriving in Constantinople that fall, he immediately replaced the Arian bishop there with a properly Nicene one. A few months later, in 381, he convened the First Council of Constantinople, which reiterated Nicene doctrinal stances, condemned various heresies, set Rome up as the ruling Christian city, and formalized the church’s political power.

As for the non-Christians in his Empire, Theodosius stopped supporting their religions. He only had eyes for Christianity. He forbade sacrifices and divinations involving animal entrails, though he stopped short of actually persecuting pagans themselves or closing temples.

Just like that, the wheel had turned.

Now it was the non-Christians facing persecution from Christians. Little steps and lurches had led Christians to the gates of power. And there was no Jesus holding them back. All the religion had needed was an emperor who considered it his moral duty to suppress and punish those who misbehaved, and who would grant clergy the right to do the same. And they’d found one!

Between 389-391, Theodosius issued a number of decrees that banned pagan practices. Pagans weren’t allowed to go to temples, pagan holidays were abolished, the sacred fire of the Temple of Vesta was extinguished and its virgin priestesses disbanded, and various forms of augury and divination were forbidden. When pagan temples were attacked, he did nothing to save them–and may even have authorized and participated in their destruction. The pagans themselves objected to all this, since they were Roman citizens and knew that freedom of religion was a long-standing right, but Theodosius didn’t care.

He also forbade apostasy. Anybody who became a Christian couldn’t go back without harsh repercussions, among which were the voiding of their wills, loss of rank, and branding. Heretics didn’t have it much easier; his laws demanded that they be “driven from cities, villages, and communities.”

The power Theodosius had granted to the clergy came to bite him on the ass eventually in an incident that in my opinion sets the endcap on a century of Christian politicking and maneuvering. He pissed off the Bishop of Milan, Ambrose, by killing a bunch of noncombatants in a fury of revengelust in 390. Ambrose responded by excommunicating the Emperor to force him to do penance. And Theodosius did it. Months of penance later, Ambrose reinstated him–after making the Emperor of Rome swear to pass a law giving a 30-day lag time between a death sentence and the execution of it. This incident may well be one of the first times that a Christian cleric had ever issued such a stunning reprimand to such a high-ranking adherent, and it left a mark on memory that would never fade. I don’t think anybody missed, either, that a Christian leader had demanded–and gotten–a civic law passed.

Christian leaders finally had the political power they had been wanting. They would keep that power in an iron fist for the next, oh, 1500 years or so.

The Dark Ages now teetered on the cusp of history.

Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...