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History of the Byzantine empire
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The cultural and religious crisis through which the Roman Empire was passing in the fourth century is one of the most significant events in the history of the world. The old pagan culture came into collision with Christianity, which received official recognition during the reign of Constantine at the beginning of the fourth century and was declared the dominant State religion by Theodosius the Great at the end of that same century. It might have seemed at first that these two clashing elements, representing two diametrically opposed points of view, would never find a basis for mutual agreement. But Christianity and pagan Hellenism did intermix gradually to form a Christian-Greco-Eastern culture subsequently known as Byzantine. Its center was the new capital of the Roman Empire, Constantinople.
The person who was chiefly responsible for the many changes in the empire was Constantine the Great. During his reign Christianity stepped for the first time on the firm ground of official recognition. From this time forward the old pagan empire gradually changed into a Christian empire.
The conversion of nations or states to Christianity has usually taken place during the early stage of their historical existence when the past has created no firmly established traditions, but merely some crude and primitive customs and forms of government. In such cases the conversion has caused no great crisis in the life of the people. But this was not characteristic of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. It already possessed an old world culture and had developed forms of government perfect for that time. It had a great past and an extensive body of ideas which had been assimilated by the population. This empire, changing in the fourth century into a Christian state, entered upon an era during which its past was contradicted, at times completely denied; this was bound to lead to an extremely acute and difficult crisis. Apparently the old pagan world, at least in the domain of religion, no longer satisfied national wants. New needs and new desires appeared, which only Christianity could satisfy.
When a moment of unusual importance is associated with some historical personage who happens to play a leading part in it, a whole literature about him is created which aims to evaluate his significance for the given period and attempts to penetrate into the innermost regions of his spiritual life. For the fourth century this important personage was Constantine the Great.
Constantine was born at the city of Naissus (Nish at present). On the side of his father, Constantius Chlorus, Constantine belonged probably to an Illyrian family. His mother, Helena, was a Christian who later became St. Helena. She made a pilgrimage to Palestine where, according to tradition, she found the true cross on which Christ was crucified. In 305, after Diocletian and Maximian had renounced their imperial rank according to the established agreement and had retired into private life, Galerius became the Augustus in the East, and Constantius, father of Constantine, assumed the title of Augustus in the West. In the following year Constantius died in Britain, and his legions proclaimed his son Constantine Augustus. At this time a revolt broke out in Rome. The mutinous population and the army rejected Galerius and proclaimed as emperor Maxentius, the son of the Maximian who had resigned his imperial power. The aged Maximian joined his son and again assumed the imperial title. A period of civil war followed, during which both Maximian and Galerius died. Constantine then formed an alliance with one of the new Augusti, Licinius, and defeated Maxentius in a decisive battle near Rome in 312. Maxentius was drowned in the Tiber while trying to flee from the enemy (at Saxa Rubra near the Milvian bridge across the Tiber). The two victorious emperors, Constantine and Licinius, met at Milan where, according to historical tradition, they proclaimed the famous Edict of Milan. The peaceful relations between the two emperors did not last very long, however. A struggle soon broke out between them, which ended in a complete victory for Constantine. Licinius was killed in 324 AD, and Constantine became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire.
The two main events of Constantine’s reign which were of paramount significance for the subsequent course of history were the official recognition of Christianity and the transfer of the capital from the shores of the Tiber to the shores of the Bosphorus, from ancient Rome to Constantinople, the “New Rome.” In studying the position of Christianity in Constantine’s time scholars have considered two problems in particular: the “conversion” of Constantine and the Edict of Milan.[1a]
Historians and theologians have been primarily interested in the causes of Constantine’s “conversion.” Why did Constantine favor Christianity? Should his attitude be viewed only as an indication of his political wisdom? Did he see in Christianity merely a means of gaining his political aims? Or did he adopt Christianity because of his own inner conviction? Or, finally, was this “conversion” influenced by both political motives and a spiritual leaning toward Christianity?
The main difficulty in solving this problem lies in the contradictory information found in the sources. Constantine as depicted by the Christian bishop Eusebius does not in the least resemble Constantine created by the pen of the pagan writer Zosimus. Historians have found ample opportunity for answering this entangled question according to their own preconceived opinions. The French historian Boissier wrote in his Fall of Paganism:
Unfortunately, when we deal with great people who play a leading part in history and try to study their lives and account for their actions, we are seldom satisfied with the most natural explanations. Since these men have the reputation of unusual people, we never want to believe that they acted just like other ordinary people. We search for hidden reasons behind their simplest actions; we attribute to them subtle considerations, depth of thought and perfidies of which they never dreamed. All this is true in the case of Constantine. A preconceived conviction became current, that this skilful politician wanted to fool us; the more fervently he devoted himself to religious affairs and declared himself a true believer, the more definite were our attempts to prove that he was indifferent to these matters, that he was a skeptic, who in reality was not concerned about any religion and preferred that religion which could benefit him most.
For a long time historical opinion was influenced greatly by the skeptical judgment of the well-known German historian, Jacob Burckhardt, expressed in his brilliant work, The Time of Constantine the Great. He represents Constantine as a statesman of genius, seized by high ambitions and a strong desire for power, a man who sacrificed everything to the fulfillment of his worldly aims. “Attempts are often made,” wrote Burckhardt, “to penetrate into the religious conscience of Constantine and then draw a picture of the changes which presumably took place in his religious beliefs. All this is done in vain. For in the case of this man of genius, whose ambitions and thirst for power troubled every hour of his life, there could be no question of Christianity and paganism, of a conscious religiousness or non-religiousness; such a man is essentially irreligious [unreligiös] … If he had stopped even for a moment to consider his real religious consciousness it would have been fatal.” This “deadly egotist,” having recognized that Christianity was bound to become a world force, made use of it precisely from that point of view. In this recognition, according to Burckhardt, lies Constantine’s great merit. Yet Constantine gave very definite privileges to paganism as well as to Christianity. To look for any system in the actions of this inconsistent man would be all in vain; there was only chance. Constantine, “an egotist in a purple mantle, does and permits all that will increase his personal power.” Burckhardt used as his main source Eusebius’ Life of Constantine, disregarding the fact that this work is not authentic. The judgment of Burckhardt, given briefly here, makes no allowance for any genuine religious feeling on the part of the Emperor.
Basing his arguments on different grounds, the German theologian Adolph Harnack, in The Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, arrived at similar conclusions. After a study of the status of Christianity in individual provinces of the empire he admitted the impossibility of determining the exact number of Christians and concluded that though toward the fourth century they were numerous and influential in the empire, they did not constitute the majority of the population. But he remarked further:
Numerical strength and real influence need not coincide in every case; a small circle may exercise very powerful influence if its members are largely drawn from the leading classes, whilst: a large number may represent quite an inferior amount of influence if it is recruited from the lower classes, or in the main from country districts. Christianity was a religion of towns and cities; the larger the town or city, the larger (even relatively) was the number of Christians. This lent it an extraordinary advantage. But alongside of this, Christianity had already penetrated deep into the country districts, throughout a large number of provinces; as we know definitely with regard to the majority of provinces in Asia Minor, and no less so as regards Armenia, Syria, Egypt, Palestine, and Northern Africa (with its country towns).
Dividing all the provinces of the empire into four categories according to the wider or narrower spread of Christianity, Harnack analyzed the position of Christianity in each category and concluded that the headquarters of the Christian church at the opening of the fourth century lay in Asia Minor. It is well known that for a number of years previous to his famous “flight” to Gaul, Constantine stayed at the court of Diocletian in Nicomedia. His impressions of Asia became apparent in Gaul, in the form of political considerations which led him to make his decisive resolve; he could benefit by the support of the firm and powerful Church and episcopate. It is idle to ask whether the Church would have gained her victory even apart from Constantine. Some Constantine or other would have come upon the scene. In any event, the victory of Christianity all over Asia Minor was achieved before Constantine came on the scene at all, and it was assured in other provinces. It required no special illumination and no celestial army chaplain to bring about what was already in existence. All that was needed was an acute and forceful statesman who had a vital interest in the religious situation. Such a man was Constantine. He was gifted, inasmuch as he clearly recognized and firmly grasped what was inevitable.
It is quite apparent that Harnack viewed Constantine as a gifted statesman only. Naturally, even an approximate statistical estimate of the number of Christians at that period is out of the question. It is admitted by many of the best modern scholars, however, that paganism was still the dominant element in the state and society, while the Christians were decidedly in the minority. According to the calculations of Professor V. Bolotov, which coincided with the estimates of several other scholars, “it is probable that toward the time of Constantine the Christians constituted one-tenth of the entire population; perhaps even this figure needs to be reduced. Any claim that the number of Christians exceeded one-tenth is precarious.” At present there seems to be uniform agreement that the Christians were in the minority during the time of Constantine. If that is true, then the purely political theory in regard to Constantine’s attitude toward Christianity must be dropped. A great statesman would not have allowed his wide political schemes to depend upon one-tenth of the population which at that time was taking no part in political affairs.
Duruy, the author of The History of Rome and of the Roman People, wrote somewhat under the influence of Burckhardt in evaluating Constantine’s activities; he referred to “honest and calm deism, which, was shaping Constantine’s religion.” According to Duruy, Constantine “very early became aware of the fact that Christianity in its fundamental dogmas corresponds with his own belief in one God." But in spite of this, Duruy continued, political considerations were of primary importance to Constantine:
As Bonaparte sought to conciliate the Church and the Revolution, so Constantine proposed to have the old and the new religions live peaceably side by side, at the same time favoring the latter. He understood which way the world was moving, and aided its movement without precipitating it. It is to the honor of this Emperor that he made good his claim to the tide assumed by him on his triumphal arch, quietis custos (custodian of peace) … We have sought to penetrate the deepest recesses of Constantine’s mind, and have found there a policy of government rather than a religious conviction.
Duruy remarked elsewhere, however, that “the Constantine pictured by Eusebius often saw between earth and heaven things which no one else ever noticed.”
Two of the large number of publications which appeared in 1913 in connection with the celebration of the sixteenth centennial of the so-called Edict of Milan were: Kaiser Constantin und die christliche Kirche, written by E. Schwartz, and Collected Papers (Gesammelte Studien), edited by F. Dölger. Schwartz stated that Constantine, “with the diabolical perspicacity of a world-master, realized the importance which the alliance with the church had for the universal monarchy which he was planning to build, and he had the courage and energy to accomplish this union against all traditions of Caesarism.” E. Krebs, in the Papers edited by Dölger, wrote that all the steps taken by Constantine toward Christianity were but secondary causes of the acceleration of the victory of the church; the main cause lay in the supernatural power of Christianity itself.
Opinions of various scholars on this subject differ widely. P. Batiffol defended the sincerity of Constantine’s conversion, and more recently J. Maurice, a well-known scholar in the field of numismatics of Constantine’s time, attempted to substantiate the miraculous element in his conversion. Boissier noted that for Constantine the statesman to deliver himself into the hands of the Christians, who constituted a minority and were of no political importance, would have meant a risky experiment; therefore, since he did not change his faith for political reasons, it must be admitted he did it through conviction. F. Lot was inclined to accept the sincerity of Constantine’s conversion. E. Stein maintained a political reason. The greatest significance of Constantine’s religious policy, he said, is the introduction of the Christian Church into the organism of the State, and he presumed that Constantine was influenced to some extent by the example of the Zoroastrian state church in Persia. H. Grégoire wrote that policy always takes precedence over religion, particularly external policy. A. Piganiol said that Constantine was a Christian without knowing it.
However, the “conversion” of Constantine, generally connected with his victory over Maxentius in 312, should not be considered as his real conversion to Christianity; he actually adopted the religion in the year he died. During his entire reign he remained the pontifex maximus; he never called Sunday anything but “the day of the sun” (dies solis); and the “invincible sun” (sol invictus) at that period usually meant the Persian God, Mithras, whose worship was spread throughout the Empire, in the East as well as in the West. At times this cult of the sun was a serious rival to Christianity. It is certain that Constantine was a supporter of the cult of the sun; such devotion was hereditary in his own family. In all probability his sol invictus was Apollo. Maurice observed that this solar religion assured him an immense popularity in the Empire.
Recently some historians made an interesting attempt to represent Constantine as merely the continuator and executor of a policy initiated by others, rather than as the sole champion of Christianity. According to Grégoire, Licinius, before Constantine, originated a policy of tolerance toward Christianity. Schoenebeck, the German historian, questioned Grégoire’s opinion; he considered Maxentius a champion of Christianity in his section of the Empire and the one who provided a model for Constantine to follow.
Granting Constantine’s leanings toward Christianity, his political schemes were nevertheless bound to have a dominating influence upon his attitude toward Christianity, which could be helpful to him in many ways. He understood that in the future Christianity would be the main unifying element among the races of the Empire. “He wanted to strengthen the unity of the Empire through a unity of the Church.”
The conversion of Constantine is usually connected with the famous story of the appearance of a luminous cross in the sky during the struggle between Constantine and Maxentius; an element of miracle is thus introduced as one of the causes of the conversion. However, the sources related to this event arouse much disagreement among historians. The earliest account of a miracle belongs to a Christian contemporary of Constantine, Lactantius, who, in his work On the Death of the Persecutors (De mortibus persecutorum), spoke only of the warning Constantine received in a dream to inscribe on his shields the likeness of the divine sign of Christ (coeleste signum Dei). Lactantius said nothing about the heavenly vision which Constantine was supposed to have seen.
Another contemporary of Constantine, Eusebius of Caesarea, wrote in two of his works about the victory over Maxentius. In his earlier work, The Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius remarked only that Constantine, starting out to save Rome, “invoked in prayer the God of Heaven and his Word, Jesus Christ, the Savior of all.” Apparently nothing was said here about the dream, or about signs on the shields. Another work, The Life of Constantine, was written about twenty-five years after the victory over Maxentius and is usually, though probably wrongly, attributed to Eusebius. This work relates that the emperor himself told and confirmed by oath the famous story of how during his march on Maxentius he saw above the setting sun a luminous cross, with the words “By This Conquer!” (τουτω νικα). He and his legions were awe-struck at this vision. The following night Christ came to Constantine in a dream, bearing the same sign, and bade him make a likeness of the cross and with it march against his enemies. As soon as dawn broke the Emperor communicated to his friends the marvelous dream and then, calling together artificers, he described to them the outlines of the vision he had seen and ordered them to execute the standard, which is known as the labarum. The labarum was a long cross formed like a spear. From the transverse bar hung a silk cloth, embroidered in gold and adorned with precious stones, bearing the images of Constantine and his two sons; at the peak of the cross was a golden wreath surrounding the monogram of Christ. From the time of Constantine the labarum became the banner of the Byzantine Empire. Reference to the divine apparition and to armies marching in heaven, which were sent by God to aid Constantine in his struggle, may be found in the works of other writers. The information on this point is so confusing and contradictory that it cannot be properly evaluated from a historic point of view. Some writers go so far as to say that the miracle took place, not during the march against Maxentius, but before Constantine’s departure from Gaul.
During the reign of Constantine the Great, Christianity received official permission to exist and develop. The first decree favoring Christianity was issued in 311 by Galerius, who had been one of its most ferocious persecutors.
This decree gave pardon to the Christians for their former stubborn resistance to government orders aimed at turning them back to paganism, and announced their legal right to exist. It declared: “Christians may exist again, and may establish their meetings, yet so that they do nothing contrary to good order. Wherefore, in accordance with this indulgence of ours, they will be bound to pray their God for our good estate, that of the commonwealth, and their own.”
Two years later, after his victory over Maxentius and agreement with Licinius, Constantine met Licinius in Milan, where they issued the very interesting document incorrectly called the Edict of Milan. The original text of this document has not been preserved, but a Latin manuscript of Licinius sent to the prefect of Nkomedia has been preserved by Lactantius. A Greek translation of the Latin original is given by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History.
According to this document the Christians and people of other religions were given full freedom to follow whatever faith they chose. All measures directed against the Christians were declared null and void:
From now on every one of those who have a common wish to observe the Christian worship may freely and unconditionally endeavor to observe the same without any annoyance or disquiet. These things we thought good to signify in the fullest manner to your Carefulness [i.e., the praeses of Bithynia], that you might know that we have given freely and unreservedly to the said Christians authority to practice their worship. And when you perceive that we have made this grant to the said Christians, your Devotion understands that to others also freedom for their own worship and observance is likewise left open and freely granted, as befits the quiet of our times, that every man may have freedom in the practice of whatever worship he has chosen, for it is not our will that aught be diminished from the honor of any worship.
The document also ordered that private buildings and churches previously confiscated from Christians be restored to them freely and unreservedly.
In 1891 the German scholar O. Seeck advanced the theory that no Edict of Milan was ever issued. The only edict which ever appeared, he stated, was the edict of tolerance issued by Galerius in 311. For a long time most historians failed to accept this view. In 1013 the sixteen-hundredth anniversary of the Edict of Milan was solemnly celebrated in many countries and a vast literature on the subject was produced. In reality, however, the edict quoted above, promulgated at Nicomedia by Licinius in 313, was a confirmation of Galerius’ edict of 311, which apparently had not been satisfactorily carried out. The document which was issued at Milan in March, 313 by Constantine and Licinius was not an edict but a letter to the governors of the provinces in Asia Minor and in the East in general, explaining and directing how they should treat the Christians.
The conclusion, on the basis of this edict, is that Constantine and Licinius gave Christianity the same rights enjoyed by other faiths, including paganism. It is premature to speak of the triumph of Christianity in Constantine’s time. To Constantine, Christianity seemed compatible with paganism. The great significance of his act is that he not only allowed Christianity to exist but actually placed it under the protection of the government. This was an extremely significant moment in the history of early Christianity. The Edict of Nicomedia, however, gave no basis for the claim made by some historians that during the reign of Constantine Christianity was placed above all other religions, that the others were only tolerated, and that the “Edict of Milan” proclaimed, not a policy of toleration, but the predominance of Christianity. When the question of the dominance or the equal rights of Christianity is raised, the decision must be in favor of equal rights. Nevertheless, the significance of the Edict of Nicomedia is great. As one historian has said, “In reality, without any unnecessary exaggeration, the importance of the ‘Edict of Milan’ remains unquestionably great, for it was an act which ended the illegal position of the Christians in the empire and declared at the same time complete religious freedom, thus reducing paganism de jure from its former position of the only state religion to the rank of all other religions.”
Constantine did more than merely grant equal rights to Christianity as a definite religious doctrine. The Christian clergy (clerici) were given all the privileges granted to the pagan priests. They were exempted from state taxation and duties as well as from the officeholding which might divert them from the performance of their religious obligations (the right of immunity). Any man could bequeath his property to the Church, which thereby acquired the right of inheritance. Thus, simultaneously with the declaration of religious freedom, the Christian communities were recognized as legal juridical entities; from a legal point of view, Christianity was placed in an entirely new position.
Very important privileges were given to episcopal courts. Any man had the right, if his opponent agreed, to carry a civil suit to the episcopal court, even after proceedings in that suit had already been started in the civil court. Toward the end of Constantine’s reign the authority of the episcopal courts was enlarged still more: (1) The decision of a bishop had to be accepted as final in cases concerning people of any age; (2) any civil case could be transferred to the episcopal court at any stage of the proceedings, even if the opposing side did not agree; (3) the decisions of the episcopal courts had to be sanctioned by civil judges. All these judicial privileges increased the authority of the bishops in society but at the same time added a heavy burden to their responsibilities and created many complications. The losing side, in view of the illegality of appealing a bishop’s decision, which could not always be correct, often remained dissatisfied and irritated. Moreover, these additional duties introduced too many worldly interests into the lives of the bishops.
The Church at the same time was growing in material wealth through gifts from state resources of landed property or money and grain. Christians could not be forced to participate in pagan festivals. At the same time Christian influence brought about some mitigation in the punishment of criminals.
In addition to all this, Constantine’s name is connected with the erection of many churches in all parts of his immense empire. The basilica of St. Peter and the basilica of the Lateran in Rome are ascribed to him. He was particularly interested in Palestine, where his mother, Helena, supposedly found the true cross. In Jerusalem, in the place where Christ was buried, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was erected; on the Mount of Olives Constantine built the Church of the Ascension and at Bethlehem the Church of the Nativity. The new capital, Constantinople, and its suburbs were also adorned with many churches, the most prominent the Church of the Apostles and the Church of St. Irene; it is possible that Constantine laid the foundations of St. Sophia, which was completed by his successor, Constantius. Many churches were being constructed in other places during Constantine’s reign, at Antioch, Nicomedia, and North Africa.
After the reign of Constantine three important Christian centers developed: the early Christian Rome, in Italy, although pagan sympathy and tradition continued to exist there for some time; Christian Constantinople, which very soon became a second Rome in the eyes of the Christians of the East; and, finally, Christian Jerusalem. After the destruction of Jerusalem by the Emperor Titus in 70 A.D., and the formation in its place of the Roman colony, Aelia Capitolina, during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian in the second century A.D, old Jerusalem had lost its significance, although it was the mother church of Christendom and the center of the first apostolic preaching. Christian Jerusalem was called to new life in the period of Constantine. Politically, Caesarea, and not Aelia, was the capital of that province. The churches built during this period in the three centers stood as symbols of the triumph of the Christian church on earth. This church soon became the state church. The new idea of the kingdom on earth was in direct contrast with the original conception of Christianity as a kingdom “not of this world,” and of the rapidly approaching end of the world.