I need to challenge myself mentally after a day of eating clam chowder and bacon bits while sitting around with family. I’ll try and summarize my paper on how Christianity came to be the main religion in the Roman Empire and help to explain some of the religious connotations of this Christmas holiday that most of us take for granted.
The Roman Empire back in the 4th century and preceding centuries was essentially a pagan state. The physical land boundaries were vast and covered many different areas that was essentially split into the East and West Empire and run by competing generals. After a series of civil wars, my main dude Constantine I came out on top. It was pretty good times for him, having defeated his rival generals and defending the lands against the Franks (think France), Visigoths (think goths, but mostly Germans and mostly Arians), Sarmatians (Arabian), and Alamanni (upper Rhine river). Who were those people, you might ask? – Not important, they lost and that’s why no one really cares about them. Back to Constantine…
So this dude is essentially boss to a HUGE stretch of land that incorporates all kinds of different cultures, traditions, beliefs, rituals etc. So long as these people recognize Roman law what does he really care about how they live? Most of the people he rules are all pagans anyways (majority) and they believe in many gods that perform many different functions in daily society as well as maintain a value structure that’s pretty honky dory with Roman life. Values like “leaving riches,” to “preserve the rites of their family and their ancestors,” and that the worship of private gods is forbidden so that worship is to those gods those worthy of merit such as “intellect, virtue, piety [and] good faith.” Sounds good on paper, but oh wait, what’s this? Christianity contradicts this?
Yes, it would seem that Romans looked unfavorably at Christianity in the first 3 centuries AD because of a couple of things your Sunday School teacher forgot to mention. Do you remember the story about how Jesus up and left his home and walked about the Earth proselytizing and collecting believers/followers? Well here’s what they failed to mention about those people that followed this strange man claiming to be the son of a God to a virgin woman – these people have families they just up and abandoned. Joseph Potter (substitute a better Roman name if you wish) is working out in his field when all of a sudden this dude with long hair and a beard wearing white cotton robes comes up to him and starts spitting some game. He blabbers on about salvation and does some pretty cool party tricks and Joseph is like, “this guy is definitely legit, I should follow him.” So Joseph up and leaves his family in the middle of the work week with no alimony or child support and essentially no way to provide for his poor wife and kids. Dick move, Joseph.
Thing is, he wasn’t the only one to abandon his family like that. Hundreds upon thousands of people were getting caught up in the belief of millenarianism (belief in the second coming of Jesus) at the time after Jesus’ birth. After all, no one put a timetable on that little miracle day. Around 70 AD people are looking at one another like, “shit, what if that dude was right? I can’t miss that whole rapture thing, I’d look like an idiot!” Well it didn’t happen in the first century or the second century or the third century but that didn’t stop people from abandoning their responsibilities to their family. Not only that, but when Joseph left he didn’t leave his estate to his family but, rather, he gave it all to the Christian Church. In a time when land = money and money = power the Romans were pretty concerned with this minority power. Consequently, that whole Roman value of passing on and leaving riches to one’s family was in serious jeopardy thanks to these Christian assholes. So what do you do with a cult-like minority who are running around and wrecking your societal values? If you’re emperor Nero, you blame Christians for a big ass fire that burned for 6 days and destroyed a bunch of shit (including his palace).
Yep, Christians were sporadically targeted for various crimes throughout the first and second century and well into the third century. Emperor Decius and emperor Diocletian did some more fucked up shit to the Xians (the X here is used like it is in Xmas. Shorthand way of saying Christians is now Xians) from 249 AD until Diocletian’s retirement in 305 AD. Basically they took church property and harassed the Xian elite, much to the favor of local elites looking to gain power. Then, in 312 AD Constantine the Great issued the Edict of Milan which granted religious tolerance to all religions. Wait, what? Really? After years of persecution and labeling Xians as scapegoats and criminals they’re just going to let them off the hook like that? Short answer: yep. Long answer: brilliant power move on Constantine’s part. We’ll get to that in a bit but the Edict of Milan is actually pretty significant so let’s take a gander.
The Edict of Milan was a significant document in not only achieving toleration of Christianity by the Roman state, but allowed for a significant part of the state to represent Christian authority by accepting “the Christian god to the tutelary deities of the Roman state.” Another significant statement in the edict grants the “freedom to follow whatever religion” a free man desires on the basis that “each man may have a free opportunity to engage in whatever worship he has chosen” (Drake 195). The document is explicit in developing a more laissez-faire approach on the part of the state in order to ensure “that no cult or religion may seem to have been impaired by [the emperors].”
Here’s the rub on why this document is important. The Roman Empire is fucking huge, but we already established that. Constantine had a vision of his empire as this huge track of land that was to be his “kingdom” (kingdom, hmmm. Sounds familiar from some kind of scriptural mentioning). In this imagining, Constantine is the king, seated at the hand of power, and mediator of all religion; including Christianity which just so happens to have this whole…thing…about a kingdom and an idea about the ‘guy’ who rules this kingdom. See what he did there?
Christianity was organized at this point in time under the Catholic Church with their hierarchy of bishops and cardinals and officials of the church (who happen to have land and power from all those Joseph Potters who left their estate like idiots). This meant that the leader of all of THESE people would truly maintain power and have underlings that will bow to his command at a local level; priests submit to their regional leaders and these regional leaders submit to the emperor. Thus, Constantine’s policy of freedom to choose religion effectively unifies the Empire when Christianity becomes the monotheistic monarchial power with Constantine as a representative God on earth. When Constantine takes control of the Eastern Empire in 324, his vision is put into motion at the Council of Nicaea. At this council, Constantine urges the bishops to provide a harmonious Christianity to supply the Empire with “universal concord”. As such, communities would need to be controlled both legally and religiously, a function that bishops provided quite efficiently. The power of the bishops grew to that of a Roman official capable of managing large estates, dispute his rights with other officials of the state and legally and judicially gain power (Goodenough 55).
That’s all good and well to assuage the threat of a minority uprising on the part of Xians, but what of the Roman pagan majority? Well, Constantine was a smart dude. He realized that he would have to combine pagan beliefs and Xian beliefs in order to get the two sides fighting for the same cause. Part of this was done through strategic symbols. One such symbol was the “Sol Invictus,” or pagan Sun god. There’s a story that says Constantine was fighting a battle on some bridge and as he was winning there was a flash of light above him (presumably from this god) and a figure appeared that said something like, “Hey dude! If you put me on flags and shit and worship me you’re gonna win this shit!” So he did. He put the solar symbol on some coins and on his flags and everyone was pretty cool with that. People from Gaul saw it as Apollo, pagans thought of it as their old pal Sol Invictus and Xians were like, “that’s totes Jesus.” So, in 213 the Sol Invictus became a symbol of mixed interpretation.
Constantine also put into place a bunch of legal and political supports which were meant to blend pagan and Xian concerns. He even went so far as to say that if provincial rulers fucked up or abused people because of their religion he’d handle the matter personally, like, Old Testament style. Funny thing is, Constantine never committed himself to Xianity until he was on his deathbed, ready to die. It wasn’t uncommon to have these deathbed conversions around this time. The world was shit and a pretty scary place to live. There wasn’t a whole lot of hope out there which is precisely why Xianity was so appealing. I mean, if you were starving and homeless and your whole family is dead (yeah, sorry your family has to die in this hypothetical situation) and some dude walks up to you with crazy party stories about “this one time I turned water into wine,” and “I can make one piece of bread feed like, a million people,” and “you’ll totally be reunited with your fam in heaven when you die,” how do you NOT get a little interested?
Anyways, Constantine converts to Xianity on his deathbed but it brings up another intellectual roadblock surrounding the use of the word superstitio in the writings that talk about this event. Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, was a Christian writer of apologetics and history who discusses how Christians, “with any semblance of consistency, modify or replace the separatism of the persecution era with an appropriate ideology of Christian empire.” What that means is that Xians, because they had power and control thanks to Constantine’s little blessing, have the power to control HOW history is recorded. Remember that whole time period when they were labeled criminals and scapegoats and Nero basically through gasoline on his own city and gave the Xians matches? Yeah, they’re all martyrs now. Just Xians struggling for their right to
party practice religion. Now that whole time period is thought of as a cleansing period that was intended to bring society closer to God. Remember all those people ditching their homes? Definitely a sign of the second coming of Jesus. Constantine as the ruler of a “kingdom?” Yeah, Moses and Jesus were God’s agents as well so Constantine was just doing his part to fulfill a larger Christian story.
Back to this whole superstitio thing, it was basically a law put into place in 294 AD that had your typical band on being a sorcerer and doing magical shit. Wizards didn’t have such a great reputation back in those days and it was punishable by a great offense to be seen as one. But wait, Jesus can raise people from the dead?! Alright, let’s burn the Xians for that. And they did, until Constantine did his whole ‘Xianity rise to power’ thing. Then the tables turned and all of those important Xian officials were like, “wait, uh, Lenny, did you just see that Jew fly?” “Uh, no, Carl, what are you talking abo-. OH, yes. Yes, that Jew just flew we should probably kill him.” It was in this time around the 5th century that the Xian elite realized they could pretty much do and say what they wanted to about other religions and use old Roman law to get the result they wanted.
With the alliance of Constantine, Christianity took hold of the Roman state in which religion was firmly grounded and flourished in a legally and judicially benefitting relationship. Although Constantine’s vision constituted an ambiguous unity between paganism and Christianity, the power of Christianity through apostolic succession and bishops as community leaders was able to coerce the power of the state, ensuring the future success of Christianity. Scholars such as Eusebius encouraged the Christian support of the Empire and established a pious sentiment which was furthered by the heretical fervor of claims of superstitio. Thus, the once persecuted Christian movement found the road to success through the Roman state which laid in wait for a dictating religion. As it stands in history, “No religion has ever been able long to keep its exalted idealism untarnished in a time of prosperity; the Christian Church under Constantine and his successors made no exception to the rule” (Goodenough 40).
If you want my sources, just ask. If you want to plagiarize…actually you probably could because I don’t think any professor would credit this blog for anything. The thoughts and views presented here were based on the collection of information for a class on Christian Religious Traditions and the rise of Christianity in the 4th century under Constanatine I. The idea behind it is to give you a clue about how Xianity went from being a dumpy religion into this powerhouse, all because Constantine gave it its first big break. Had that never happened we probably wouldn’t be talking about whether or not we should say “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas” and Fox news would be short days and days of talking points during the holiday season.