Continued from last week…
In our last exciting episode, the emperor Diocletian was doing his level best to exterminate Christianity, which had taken root in a surprising 10% of the empire’s population. Even more alarmingly it had found a home among a few members of the imperial household which ran the empire, and in the army. Then it all changed. In 303 AD, the followers of Jesus were being rounded up and executed. In 313 AD, just ten years later, Christianity was not only made legal, but was actually given favored status. How had it happened? Simple: a vision. More about that later.
In 235 AD things fell apart for the Roman Empire. Emperor Alexander Severus was assassinated by his own troops, the generals fought for the imperial throne for the next 50 years, plague broke out, and there was general economic downturn and a dangerous devaluing of the currency. The coinage got so bad that the government wouldn’t even accept its own money as payment for taxes. Taxes were paid in kind. A town would be assessed so many bushels of wheat, so many military boots, so many swords etc. If the local officials couldn’t come up with the taxes that their towns or districts had been assessed, they would be sold into slavery to pay the bill! It got so bad that local officials would pack up their wagons and families and cross the border to join the barbarians outside the empire’s boundaries.
At one point, the empire broke into four parts. For our purposes the most interesting chaos happened in 270 AD when Zenobia (her real name) regent of the city of Palmyra, in Syria, invaded the Roman Empire. She controlled Syria, the Holy Land, and Egypt for three years, after which the Romans captured her and put an end to her and to her rebellion. The Jews hadn’t been much trouble in more than a hundred years, and weren’t trouble now, but somehow the taint of being Semitic, like the Palmyrenes and Zenobia, raised suspicions. The Jews seemed more comfortable with the Persian and Aramaic speaking peoples of the east, many of whom were followers of Zoroaster or the prophet Mani both of which religions were essentially monotheistic. The Jews in the neighborhood had not risen up as far as I have been able to find out, but the Romans were not very forgiving nor very forgetting rulers.
After a half century of disaster, the emperor Diocletian, already mentioned, came to the imperial throne. He realized that the empire was just too big to govern. He divided it into two administrative sections east and west and appointed a co-emperor for the east and two assistant emperors, one east, one west. Things calmed down a bit and as I mentioned, he was busy blaming the Christians for the mess the empire was in. He retired in 305 and was followed by the short lived Constantius, who died a year later and was followed by his son, Constantine. Constantine was a tough soldier and he wanted the whole enchilada. He took to the field and waged war on his rival, Maxentius. He marched his troops toward Rome down the Flaminian road, where, in northern Italy, he went from victory to victory. When he arrived just north of Rome, things didn’t look so good. Maxentius, Constantine’s chief rival had twice as many soldiers as Constantine and was safe behind the city walls of Rome.
Then Constantine had a vision. He later told the historian, Bishop Eusebius, that he saw a cross over the sun and the Greek words “En toutō níka,” or “in hoc signo vinces,” in Latin, which means “In this sign, you shall conquer.” He didn’t understand the meaning of the vision, but the next night he had a dream in which Jesus of Nazareth spoke to him and said that he should use the sign against his enemies. Constantine had his soldiers paint it on their shield to replace the Roman eagle, at least that’s what Constantine told Eusebius. Maxentius had a revelation of his own. He went to see the keepers of the Sibylline Books, Rome's own collection of prophetic utterances. The keepers prophesied that, “the enemy of the Romans” would die in the coming battle. It was the old gods against Christ. Maxentius suffered a complete defeat at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, on October 28, 312. By the way, in the heat of battle he fell off the bridge and drowned.
Now Constantine was the undisputed ruler of Rome and the western empire. He shared power with only one other - Licinius. He and Licinius met to confer in 313 in Milan. Constantine would rule the west, Licinius the east and for good measure Licinius would marry Constantine’s sister, Constantia. By the way, they issued something called the Edict of Milan which guaranteed complete freedom of religion in the whole empire. Property and real estate taken from Christians during the persecutions of Diocletian were to be returned. Things deteriorated, you know how in-laws can be. It seems that Licinius had reopened the persecution of Christians. Over the course of the next ten years hostility between Licinius and Constantine ended with Licinius defeat and execution. Constantine went on to advance the cause of Christianity and the stabilization of the empire which included moving the capital from Rome to a new Rome built in the east. The renewed empire was to last in one form or another for almost a thousand years until it finally fell to the Turks in 1453 and became Istanbul (formerly Constantinople).
A lot of cynics like me think, “Of course. A vision. How convenient.” But if you look a little more closely, Christianity was very unpopular with the great majority of Romans. The Roman senate, aristocracy and military were largely hostile to Christianity. Remember, Diocletian had spent years ridding the military and the government of Christians. It seems quite reasonable that Constantine adopted Christianity out of real conviction, not for political advantage. He himself was not baptized until he lay on his deathbed in 337, some 25 years after his vision, but he advanced the cause of Christianity with government perks and huge building projects, especially in Rome, Jerusalem and his new capital, Constantinople.
A new age of religious tolerance and prosperity had dawned. Sort of. Over the next century Christianity became known as “the religion of the Romans.” The Messiah of Israel became the Christ of Rome. To be a Roman was to be a Christian. The old religion was gradually and often violently suppressed. Heresy was now a crime against the state, not just a religious offense, and the Jews? The position of that tolerated sect of the rabbinic Pharisees, now universally called “the Judeans” (Jews), was less certain. The long standing theological debate between the sect of the Nazarenes and the Rabbinic Pharisees had become a political problem. As early as Constantine things started to change. Constantine declared that Jews were forbidden to own Christian slaves or to circumcise any slaves they did own. One feels a very cold wind blowing.
Nest week: the cold wind gets windier and hotter.