II. Ancient and Classical Periods, 3500 B.C.E.–500 C.E. > E. Rome > 5. The Later Empire, 284–527 C.E. > d. Christians and Pagans
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  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
 
 
d. Christians and Pagans
 
Christian churches flourished in the third-century crisis that affected the civic institutions of the Empire (See The Rise of Christianity). The extent of Christian belief at the end of the century is controversial, however. While some Christians held positions in the government and army, and some were well-to-do, the great majority were uneducated, poor city-dwellers. Nevertheless, Christians were sufficiently conspicuous for them to be perceived as a threat and to be officially and systematically persecuted by Decius in 250, by Valerian in 257–260, and, finally, from 303 to 311 by Diocletian and Galerius. The persecutions, which entailed the burning of sacred books, the destruction and confiscation of church property, the loss of high status (honestiores) for Christians, and the arrest of the clergy, failed to curtail the growth of Christian communities.  1
Constantine, whose mother, Helena, was a Christian, and who described himself as a Christian after 312, is the pivotal figure in Christianity's rise. As emperor he ended all persecution and restored church property, and in 313 with his Edict of Milan, he granted toleration and legal recognition to Christian churches. He also enforced the legitimacy of the particular Christian sect he supported by actively suppressing other “heretical” sects (e.g., the Donatists) and by insisting on compromise in doctrinal disputes within the “orthodox” church. The bitter controversy between Arius of Alexandria, who held that Christ was of a different substance—heterousios—than god, and Bishop Alexander (to be succeeded by Athenaeus), who held that they were of the same substance, was settled by the emperor at the Council of Nicea in 325, where the doctrine that Christ was consubstantial—homoousios—was sanctioned. (The dispute raged on until the reign of Theodosius I.) The conversion of Constantine did not, however, make Christianity the religion of the Roman state. Under Constantine and his successors, the Empire remained officially multireligious, and traditional polytheism continued to be openly practiced. But Constantine did turn the tide by shifting imperial largess away from the traditional Roman cults to Christian churches (the bishops of large cities became enormously wealthy due to imperial largess), by granting exemption and immunities to Christian clergy, and by favoring Christians in the army and administration. The gradual conversion of the upper classes to Christianity was accomplished, not by force or persuasion, but by the patronage and example of the imperial family. Constantine's sons, especially Constantius, were fervent Arians, and under them the cults of traditional Roman religion suffered from lack of government support, confiscation of land, and official indifference to organized Christian attacks, as well as from the actual closings of temples. The tide was briefly reversed by Julian (361–363), who attempted to restore the traditional religion by granting toleration to polytheists, by shifting imperial funding back to the old cults, by revoking privileges for the Christian clergy, by forbidding Christians to teach Greek and Latin literature, and by passively condoning attacks on Christian churches. The official revival of polytheism ended with Julian's premature death. That Julian's successors as emperor were all Christians shows how far the faith had penetrated the army. Yet Julian's reform was not entirely in vain, since it was almost 30 years before the vehement intolerance of Constantius was again official policy. On becoming emperor, Jovian issued an edict of general toleration, which was renewed by Valentinian and Valens, under whose reigns non-Christian temple lands were confiscated, although the temples remained open.  2
It was the growing numbers of powerful men who were entering the higher orders of the Church that effected a change. In 374, Aurelius Ambrosius (Ambrose, c. 339–397), the son of a praetorian prefect and himself consul of Aemilia, was elected bishop of Milan. In this position he exerted great influence, first over the emperor Gratian (who revoked the edict of toleration, dropped the title pontifex maximus, confiscated the revenues of the Vestal Virgins and other priesthoods in Rome, and removed the Altar of Victory from the senate house), then over Valentinian II (whose denial in 384 of Symmachus's request to restore the Altar of Victory was due to Ambrose), and finally over Theodosius. The aim of Ambrose and men like him to create a Christian state in which traditional Roman polytheism, Judaism, and Christian heresies (especially Arianism) would not be tolerated was accomplished during the reign of Theodosius. Christian letters were continued in Greek by such men as Eusebius of Caesarea (260–340), who among other things established the tradition of Christian chronography, and by the theologian Gregory of Nazianzus (329–89). Latin Christian writing was dominated by North Africans such as Arnobius (fl. 295) and Lactatius (c. 240–320). The preeminent figures of the late 4th century were Jerome (Hieronymus, 348–430), who composed a major revision of the Latin Bible (the Vulgate), and Augustine (354–430), whose Neo-platonic thinking revolutionized Christian theology in the west (See c. 340).  3
The subsequent religious history of the Christian Roman Empire is essentially that of doctrinal disputes. Under Theodosius II (408–450), Nestorius, the bishop of Constantinople, who argued for a sharp distinction between the divine and human nature of Christ, was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431. During the 5th and 6th centuries, the eastern Church was torn by the Monophysite heresy, whose doctrine was that Christ had a single nature. Although the doctrine was condemned at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the eastern emperors on the whole were Monophysite. As imperial authority weakened in the west, the bishop of Rome became powerful and wielded political as well as religious power. A major development was monasticism which had a long tradition in the east (Antony in Egypt, c. 285). The work of Martin of Tours (362) (See c. 340) spread monasticism in the west, culminating in the rule of St. Benedict (regula Sancti Benedicti), who founded his monastery at Monte Cassino in 529. The rule was adopted by Cassiodorus (480–575), secretary of Theodoric, who founded a monastery at Beneventum in 540. The closing of the philosophical schools in Athens by Justinian, the execution of Boethius, and the founding of the Benedictine monastery mark the transition from the classical to the medieval world. (See Conditions of Life)  4
 
 
 
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

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