HIST 210: The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000
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The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000
HIST 210 - Lecture 3 - Constantine and the Early Church
Chapter 1: Introduction [00:00:00]
Professor Paul Freedman: Today, we’re going to talk about what is arguably the most important event of the first part of our course, the conversion of Constantine, the Roman emperor, to Christianity. Important not because of Constantine’s own particular opinions. The fact that he embraced Christianity is, as we’ll see, a little hard to explain on purely strategic grounds.
But its importance is that it represents a permanent change. It represents the beginning of the Christianization of the Roman Empire, a very unexpected result. Because not only had Christianity been illegal in the prior history of the empire, that is to say, for over 250 years, but of course, the god-man Jesus had been put to death by the forces of the Roman Empire. And as we’ve discussed, Roman religion, with its emphasis on what we’ve called “civic polytheism,” or the performance of ceremonies in public, ceremonies that have to do with local patriotism, emperor worship, the tradition of the Olympian gods, and, above all, polytheism, was very foreign to Christianity.
The Christian religion thus seemed to be a kind of annoying epiphenomenon of Roman society when, in fact, with this event, Constantine’s conversion, it becomes first a tolerated religion, then a favored religion, and very quickly, within the course of the fourth century AD, the official and almost the only religion of the Roman Empire. How can this be? We’ll discuss both the specific events today, and their meaning, and how they play out.
We recall then that what is called “paganism,” a traditional religion of the Roman empire, was polytheistic, was many gods, ceremonial, had a lot of local variation, and it was eclectic–eclectic meaning that you could worship different gods in different places, different gods for different purposes, different gods for different times of your life.
There was a certain emotional vacuum, or at least a perceived vacuum, in this religion because it seemed to deny individual longing and longing in general, that longing, that sense internally that there is more to life than there appears to be. So that many adherents of other religions, including, but not limited to, Christianity believed that some part of their body was immortal, or the soul was immortal, or that the immortal soul had to be healed by religion, and not that religion should simply be a pathway to good fortune or to easing the anxieties of the material world.
So Christianity, we’ve said, is not so much otherworldly, focused on heaven. It is that. But even more important perhaps is its innerness, its inner worldliness, the sense that people have a interior soul that yearns for something eternal and more significant. And then Christianity was accompanied by other so-called “mystery religions,” religions that also spoke to an immaterial, heroic, non-civic, non-urban type of piety, Mithraism, for example, the worship of the mother goddess Cybele. Christianity had certain advantages in terms of reaching a population, the promise of an afterlife, the commitment that it demanded of people, a religion that appealed both to the elite and to the common people, and a very strong local organization.
But Christianity was alien to the Roman Empire. The Romans did not always persecute Christianity, as they did under Diocletian. But they found Christianity alien. They didn’t like the fact that Christianity was intolerant.
Every other religion of the Roman Empire, with one exception, accepted other gods. If you worshipped Isis, you had nothing against other people worshipping Jupiter. If you worshipped Cybele, you had nothing against other people worshipping Mithra. But Christianity, of course, ridiculed all of these gods. The only other religion that was like this was Judaism. But Judaism made some accommodations with the Roman Empire, recognized the authority of the Roman emperor, and did not defy the state in the way that Christianity at least appeared to.
And Christianity was not a Roman religion in many of the ways that it rejected worldliness, rejected engagement in or enjoyment of the material world:the pleasures of the theater, the circus, the celebrations of civic paganism, emperor worship, law courts. Well, law courts may not be pleasurable. But this sort of civic involvement of the emperor and the Empire are rejected by Christianity. Christianity, when you see what Roman pagans write about it, is a kind of killjoy religion. It’s a religion of people who seem to have their eyes focused on anything but the actual process of getting ahead in Roman society.
All of this notwithstanding, it should be emphasized that Christianity was not persecuted constantly nor was the persecution very intense. We have Nero in the late 60s AD, the Decian persecution of the mid-third century, and of course, the great persecution under Diocletian. Christianity received just enough persecution, one might say, to fortify its spirit, to give it some backbone, but not enough to break it.
Chapter 2: Constantine’s Rise to Power [00:07:03]
Constantine emerged from the chaos following Diocletian’s abdication. Diocletian, and as you’ll recall, had created this four man rule, the Tetrarchy, in order to divide what was perceived as an excessively large empire with an excessively large administrative structure. The Tetrarchy was, at least we can say with hindsight, doomed to failure. These four emperors would not cooperate. They would tend to be rivals.
Constantine was the son of one of the caesars, one of the subordinates. Remember there were two augusti, two caesars. His father was ConstantiusChlorus who was appointed when the Tetrarchy began in the West in 293. So there was an Augustus of the West and a Caesar of the West. The Caesar of the West was ConstantiusChlorus. The young Constantine was sent east to serve the eastern Augustus, who succeeded Diocletian, Galerius.
Constantine was left out of the succession when Diocletian abdicated. Galerius appointed somebody else, and Constantine rebelled. Constantine, in 306, raised an army in faraway Britain, marched on Gaul, and eventually was grudgingly recognized by Galerius as caesar. At the same time, another disinherited son of an augustus, a man named Maxentius, rebelled in Rome.
And I will not burden you with the whole working out of these intrigues, of the fightings of armies, of the quarrels of augusti and caesars. But basically, in 311, Galerius, who had been ill with cancer, died. And Galerius was succeeded by an emperor in the East named Licinius. And Licinius allowed Constantine to deal with the usurper Maxentius in the West. So we have Licinius in the east in 311, and then in the West, Constantine and Maxentius fighting it out. Galerius has died.
Constantine defeated Maxentius at a battle not far from Rome, the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. The Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312. And Constantine was now Augustus in the West, Licinius, Augustus in the East.
Chapter 3: The Battle of the MilvianBridge and Constantine’s Conversion [00:10:12]
The Battle of the Milvian Bridge is the context for whatever had happened that changed Constantine’s mind about his religious orientation. Just before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, something happened. There are two stories that purport to explain the event.
One is that Constantine had a dream. And in this dream, an angel spoke to him and ordered him to paint a symbol combining the Greek letter chi and the Greek letter rho on his soldiers’ shields. The rho, the R in Greek, and the chi written as an X. The two letters symbolize, or at least were taken later to symbolize, Christ, the first letter being a chi, the second a rho.
The second version, which is later, that is, later in circulation as a story, but seems perhaps to have been attested by the emperor himself to his biographer, Eusebius. According to Eusebius, Constantine was marching with his army before the battle. And he, along with the army, saw a cross in the sky. And superimposed on the sun, against which background the cross appeared, were the words, “In this sign, you will conquer.”
Hard to say which version, if either, is what Constantine thought happened to him. The argument for the second one is partly Eusebius’s description, partly the fact that angels in a dream are a standard kind of story. On the other hand, the Chi Rho symbol is not previously a sign of Christianity. So the very fact that there isn’t a background to that, that this is something that we hear of now for the first time, might indicate that that’s the true story.
But more important than what actually happened is that there’s no reason to doubt Constantine’s sincerity. There is no reason to believe that this was a calculating, cynical, or politically astute move. This is not because Constantine wasn’t devious. He was. But because it’s hard to imagine any emperor thinking that Christianity was a good idea. Because Christianity was subversive of Roman values. And it was particularly subversive of the values of the Roman army, whose crucial aid Constantine depended on and of which Constantine had to be the leader not only in order to defeat Maxentius, but simply to survive in power.
Christianity was pacifist. At this time, it took more literally than it would later the admonitions of Christ in the Gospels not to fight, not to hit back, not to engage oneself in the pursuit of worldly gain by means of violence. So it’s hard to imagine anything more unlikely than an emperor becoming Christian and gaining the support of his followers.
Now that doesn’t mean that Constantine became some sort of monk, interpreted the Gospels literally, told his soldiers to put down their weapons. It’s clear that Constantine regarded the Christian god much as other emperors had regarded, say, the Invincible Sun, or the genius of the divine emperor, or any other pagan deity that brought victory in war. Constantine, like all emperors, saw himself as a child a fortune, as someone who was favored by fortune, depended on fortune, and who needed to placate, to mollify, to please whatever god it was that controlled fortune.
What’s unusual is that he would deem the Christian god to be this sort of god, a leader of war, a giver of victory in battle, a companion to the emperor. None of this would seem, at first glance, to be likely in Christianity. The fact that not only does it work, but that it would work for centuries later is just part of the cataclysmic nature of this event, or if not cataclysmic, at least unexpected.
Constantine was not ignorant. He’s someone who had studied philosophy, who was quite literate, knew Greek pretty well, familiar with Latin literature. But nevertheless, he was obviously a man of affairs. He’s not an intellectual, contemplative person, poring over philosophy books. He’s a man of power, decisiveness, strategy, and not a little cruelty and brutality.
And we can see that after his conversion experience– and indeed, I should point out he did beat Maxentius– he accepted the Christian god, he went to battle with the usurper, and he defeated him. But even after his victory, he doesn’t become, in every respect, a totally committed Christian at least in terms of the symbols of power of his office. His coins, for example, which are a very good mark of propaganda and self-regard, his coins kept the imagery of the earlier pagan deity associated with the emperor, the Invincible Sun. After a little while, you start to see the Invincible Sun on one side of the coin and the cross on the other. And only later in his reign do we have just the cross.
Chapter 4: Constantine as a Christian Emperor [00:17:01]
Constantine’s first substantive act as a Christian or as someone who favored the Christian church was the Edict of Tolerance. The Edict of Tolerance or Edict of Toleration issued at Milan in 313 was jointly the product of Constantine and Libanius, now the two last guys standing. The Augustus of the East, Libanius, and Constantine, the Augustus of the West.
Libanius was a pagan. He did not share Constantine’s bizarre enthusiasm, but all right. If he wanted to tolerate Christianity, this was fine. This was part of their– I’m sorry. It’s not Libanius. Libanius is a philosopher. Licinius. Licinius. Constantine and Licinius.
Licinius was a pagan, but he was willing to go along with toleration. At this point, Christianity was legalized. But in the west, Constantine came to favor the Church and do more than merely accept it as legal. For example, he returned property confiscated in the Diocletianic persecutions. He exempted the Church from state taxation, an incredible gift, and allowed church officials, bishops and others, to use the imperial communications system, the so-called post system whereby they could get fresh horses to go from one place to another, greatly speeding up their journeys and making the journeys, in effect, chargeable to the state.
Constantine left the pagan and ceremonial center of Rome alone, for the time being at least, and built two great basilicas on its outskirts. One, Saint Peter’s. The St. Peter’s that stands today is, of course, a product of the Renaissance and the Baroque. But the old church that was destroyed in the sixteenth century was that of Constantine. And he also built the Lateran Basilica. Both of these outside the walls of Rome.
As we’ll discuss, he also attempted to mediate in disputes involving the church. He never, however, completely marginalized the old religions. He emphasized the diversity of religious practice. He didn’t require a single form of worship. But by the time he died in 337, the pace of conversions was such that perhaps as much as half of the Empire had embraced Christianity. And this brings us to a crucial question, of course, that we’ll be discussing really throughout the semester, and that is what was the effect of Constantine’s conversion on the Church? Or beyond the mere event of 312, what did it mean for the Church to go from persecuted minority to established majority? What explains Constantine’s ability not only to change the course of the Roman religious practice and tendencies, but to do so permanently? For the Church, was this turnaround a providential sign or a kind of Trojan horse gift in which the Church would now be so tied to the official culture that it would never be able to shake off Rome, administration, and bureaucracy to get back to its original, charismatic, individual, powerful foundations?
The era of Constantine establishes the problem of the Church in the world for the Middle Ages and, indeed, beyond. This problem is: is the church a collection of special people who have their eyes fixed on heaven or, is it a kind of universal society that is hard to distinguish from just worldliness and engagement with the world of business, life, death, and other banalities? It is Saint Augustine who is going to deal with this most forcibly in terms of theory, but that’s a century later or so, well, 75 years later.
Externally, the Church adapted very quickly to success. We can see this in terms of the pace of conversion, as I said. Not only were 50% of the people, perhaps, Christian by 337 when Constantine died, but by 390, the time of the Emperor Theodosius and his death, 395, probably 90% of the population was at least nominally Christian. The reasons for this success. In other words, how could Constantine’s particular gesture have such a decisive impact? Some of this has to do with Christianity’s willingness to adopt to the customs of the Empire. Some of it may have to do with the weakness of the official religion of Rome and of the urban elites who were its chief support.
Those who held out against Christianity were, on the one hand, people in the rural areas, so peasants, whose fundamental beliefs tended to be directed to agriculture, local deities, deities that controlled the weather, and water, and things like that. The army, for reasons I’ve just said, that is, Christianity is not, at first glance, congenial to people who fight for a living. And then the third group that held out were the intelligentsia, particularly of Roman and Athens, the people who had a substantial cultural investment in Greek and Roman philosophy, the intellectual side of the old elite.
Chapter 5: The City of Constantinople [00:23:50]
Well, Constantine fell out with Licinius. And after some small skirmishes, Constantine managed to defeat him at a place called Chrysopolis in 324. Licinius fled from the battlefield, Constantine’s forces caught up with him, and Licinius was executed. This event, this Battle of Chrysopolis, important in itself– P-O-L-I-S– important in itself was even more important because it showed Constantine the importance of the small fortress city of Byzantium, not far away. Byzantium who is the ancestor of the city that Constantine would found there, Constantinople.And of course, modern Istanbul in its twenty-first century incarnation.
Byzantium commanded a strategic point of access east-west and north-south. It was the point of access between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. The Bosphorus is a narrow strait that separates Europe from Asia. Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul stands on the west bank, the European side, but it commands and controls the channel by which anyone would go from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. And since the Black Sea is the gateway to central Asia, it, in effect, controls communications between two commercial, strategic, and military zones. It also controls the route from the Balkans, southeastern Europe, into Asia, into, specifically in this case, Asia Minor or the Asian part of what’s now Turkey.
Byzantium is, therefore, strategically located in terms of communication and, at the same time, located so that an army can get to two of the most dangerous frontiers of the Roman empire in a reasonable amount of time without having to commit itself to one or the other totally. It is not far from the Danube frontier, which was, as we said, one of the points at which the empire met the Barbarian tribes and which the empire had sort of decided on as its natural frontier. And Constantinople was also not that far from the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire, the frontier with Persia, which ran along what’s now eastern Turkey, Armenia, western Iran, and Iraq.
It was the city, also, within the richest part of the empire. As we said, one of the problems of the Empire in its later years, its later centuries was that the east was becoming richer, more urban, more commercial. The west was lagging behind, more rural, less successful in its commerce.
Constantine wanted an eastern capital for both strategic and for economic reasons. For strategic reasons having to do with the movement of the armies and the protection of the frontier. For economic reasons having to do with taxation and administration.
The city of Rome itself was somewhat isolated, strangely enough since, of course, the whole empire had grown up around Rome. But Rome was the historical origin of the Empire, but not, in the fourth century AD, its actual living capital. It would be too much to compare it, say, to the relationship between Portugal and Brazil. It’s not quite that lopsided. But Brazil is a former colony of Portugal. They speak the language of Portugal. Yet on the world stage, Brazil is larger than Portugal, more important than Portugal, richer now than Portugal. So whatever preeminence Portugal, or its capital, Lisbon, has within the world of culture, no Brazilian would take Lisbon to be the be all and end all of the Portuguese cultural world. So similarly, by this time, Rome has become less important even within the western empire. And this relocation of the capital to Constantinople, the relocation of the capital to the east is significant because it shows us the permanent result of the Tetrarchy.
As we’ve said, Diocletian’s experiment was a failure in the sense that the emperors and caesars would not cooperate. And such a scheme was never tried again. But the division of the Empire between east and west would be something that would eventually become permanent. Its first traces are with Diocletian, and that’s one reason why we begin the course with him. It is also something that continues under Constantine without the addition of the caesars. Constantine ruled over the whole empire. He did not divide it himself, but he facilitated its conceptual, and eventually real, political division by creating a new Rome, a new capital in the former fortress of Byzantium, a town that he modestly named after himself.
Constantinople, as this town was called, was planned to be a new Rome. Like Rome, it would have a forum; it would have civic spaces; it would have races and sporting events. It would have imperial palaces and gardens; it would have victory columns, triumphal arches, aqueducts, the whole panoply of classical civilization. It wouldn’t have a whole lot of temples. Churches would be more important than temples, not that Constantine totally banned temples from Constantinople. But these were not the highlights of the city.
It is an ideological statement like other planned, great, imperial sites. So we could compare it to, in the modern world, Saint Petersburg, created by the czars as a certain kind of statement, with a certain kind of plan, and a certain kind of look evoking western Europe in particular. Or Versailles, not a town at all, but rather a kind of palace city fit for the king of France.
Chapter6: Constantine intervenes in Church Doctrine [00:31:32]
At this point, Constantine becomes considerably more devout and somewhat more intolerant. We start to see him interact with the Christian Church in its most intimate way, that is to say, doctrine. Constantine is appealed to by the Donatists, schismatics–well, we’re calling them schismatics–or heretics, as they were decided to be, from North Africa. The Donatists taught that the priests who had given over the scriptures under persecution at the time of Diocletian were not legitimate priests. And we’ll talk later about the implications of this.
The implications, briefly, are that the Church cannot cover for priests, that the office is not greater than the man. If the man has committed a sin, such as what was called treason, the handing over of the scriptures to the persecutors, he no longer can baptize validly, he no longer can perform the sacraments with validity. Donatism, then, implies that the Church itself is really just as good as the character of its officials. The Donatists were strong in North Africa, and they appeal to Constantine against decisions that had been made against them within the Church. The fact that Christians are appealing to the emperor already, as early as 317, shows the acceptance of the emperor as a Christian arbiter. But it also shows a kind of, in retrospect, dangerous intermingling of what we would consider to be church and state.
Similarly, Constantine would get involved in controversies over the relationship between God, the Father, and Christ, the Son. This, too, we’ll go into in more detail, but this is the Arian heresy– Arian with an “i”, not with a “y”– named after a priest named Arius who taught that while Christ is God, he is, in some sense, subordinate to God the Father. This is a controversy over the nature of the Trinity in which Christ is seen as coming from God, as emanating from God. And as I think I warned at the beginning of the course, if you don’t like doctrinal and theological controversy, I’ll try to spare you all its ins and outs, but you can’t teach this course without it.
Again, what we’re talking about now is not the content of Arianism, who embraced it, why, but the fact that the Emperor gets involved in these controversies. On the one hand, this shows the quick adaptation of the Church to imperial rule. On the other hand, because Constantine was able to solve neither the Donatist nor the Arian division, at least not definitively, and at least not yet, it shows how difficult it was for an emperor who could conquer all of his secular rivals, who could control this vast realm from Gibraltar to the Tigris and Euphrates, but couldn’t get a bunch of North African peasants to obey his orders about how to worship, or Egyptian priests either.
Constantine, we can see, is frustrated by this. You can see in the reading from Jones, his difficulties in dealing with this in the usual way. The usual way being the emperor is petitioned by people, he appoints some arbiters or judges, the judges make a decision, and then the emperor announces to these people that that’s what it’s going to be. The problem is that, of course, people like the Donatists were already used to martyrdom. Threatening them with imprisonment, threatening them with torture, denouncing them, trying to use the awesome, awe-inspiring power of the emperor against them was not going to be sufficient. Nevertheless, Constantine, far from abandoning Christianity in frustration, becomes more and more engaged in trying to, if not officially Christianize the Empire, at least legislate as a Christian emperor. By 330, he has come to see himself not merely as an emperor who has a kind of peculiar favor or a peculiar god that is following him, but as the implementer of the mission of the Church. So for example, he starts promulgating laws against married men having concubines– ineffective– or the seduction of wards by their guardians, or punishing rape by burning, all orientation towards sexual crimes that shows a more Christian horror of them than the more easygoing Roman attitude.
Constantine favors the church, enacts legislation recommended by the church, favors the bishops, and even in the 320s, presides over the first ecumenical council of bishops of the Church called at Nicaea across the Bosporus from Constantinople, the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea called to deal with the Arian controversy. And here, we see Constantine as something different from an emperor merely the companion of Christ or the companion of God, but the emperor as, in some sense, head of the Church. Constantine appears at the council, he is deferred to by the bishops. Nevertheless, he is not himself a bishop.
He is not himself, however imperial the Church may look, able to legislate by himself for the church. Because unlike many other religions– and certainly when we come to Islam, you’ll see the contrast– the political leader of the Roman Empire is not the designated leader of the religious practice of the Church because he is not a priest. Now who is the designated leader of the church is not clear yet. Certainly, it’s not yet the pope in the 320s. It is the collectivity of bishops, but in that case, then some bishops have more power than others. Nevertheless, this is the beginning of an era in which we have a blending, but not a total equivalency of secular rule, imperial rule, on the one hand, and spiritual or church rule on the other. And that’s one of the things that, of course, characterizes our image of the Middle Ages, a period in which the church and the state were overlapping, if not actually fused.
Chapter 7: Constantine and Diocletian [00:39:38]
Constantine in relation to Diocletian, to conclude.Differences and similarities. Obviously, their similarities are great. Both Diocletian and Constantine remade the Roman Empire as a much more tightly administered state, a more bureaucratically complicated state, and a more militarized state. Constantine continued Diocletian’s military and administrative structure. Like Diocletian, in order to do this, he had to rely on very heavy taxation. If anything, his taxation had to be greater because he had exempted the Church and its clergy, and someone was going to have to make up the difference.
But Diocletian had persecuted the Catholic church, whereas Constantine would favor it. And that is, of course, a crucial difference. On the other hand, even here there are some connections. Under Diocletian, the emperor was a god. The emperor was a distantly glimpsed figure. He was no longer, even in pretense, first citizen, guy just like you and me, hand-shaker, baby-kisser, anything like that.
But this was also true with Constantine. Constantine, too, had a ceremonial, distant, and–because of his association with the Church–semi-sacred status. He couldn’t be worshipped as a god, to be sure, but he was something a bit more than merely a follower of Christianity. Constantine ended the Tetrarchy, but he really set the seal on the division of the Empire east and west, as we’ve just said, by the establishment of Constantinople.
And finally, Constantine was a little more successful economically. Diocletian did not have the means available to Constantine who had a certain amount from the old pagan temple treasures that he was able to confiscate. And also, by virtue of his victory over Licinius, he was able to rule pretty tightly over the Empire.
The fourth century often is seen as a period of decline because we’re focused– we– historians are focused on the collapse of the Roman Empire in the late fifth century. But obviously, people in 337, the year that Constantine died, did not know that in 476 the Western Empire would collapse. They did not know that in 410 Visigoths would invade and plunder the city of Rome, no more than we have the faintest idea of what’s going to happen 75 or 100 years from now. From their point of view, the Empire had been restored. The Empire, which had been endangered in the third century by invasions, inflation, armed forces out of control, chaotic imperial succession, was now stable.
It was clear who the emperor was. The barbarians had been pushed back behind the frontiers. Trade, culture, civilization seemingly flourished. And if we trust the impressions we have of contemporaries, both formal, written work and informal, things like the slogans that people put in their dining room mosaics, for example, good times had been restored. This seems to be the constant theme. And I emphasize this because, again, it’s a lesson in how history cannot be seen from the front backwards. You can’t use hindsight to tell what people should have felt.
People in the fourth century at the time of Constantine were optimistic. No more so those people who had embraced Christianity as the coming thing, as the religion of not only truth, but of success. What is odd is, of course, that thus far, Christianity would have seemed to be unlikely. Christianity would have seemed to be alien from the Empire. And even if some emperor embraced it for weird reasons of its own, his own, it wouldn’t have seemed to have been the most favorable context for the preservation of the Empire.
And indeed, of course, the Empire would fail in the west within a century and a half or so of the embrace of Christianity. And it’s no surprise, then, that the English historian of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon, whose Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire sort ofsets the agenda for any course like this one. It’s no accident that Gibbon blamed Christianity for the fall of the Empire. But indeed, in the fourth century, it seemed that Christianity was one of the forces that had saved the Empire. And not only that, as we will see as this course unfolds, much of what was preserved from the debacle of 476 and successive problems of the preservation of civilization would be preserved through the action of the Church. Thanks very much.
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