Rome, Constantine and Christianity – A Very Brief History

Editor’s note: This is the second post in a series of posts on the Crusades. If you’re interested then you can check out the first post which provides a good exposition for the series. Otherwise enjoy.

Rome (a prelude to the prelude) 

The story of the fall of Rome, is a rather patchy tale, depending on what you consider ‘Rome’ and what you consider ‘Fall’.

The Ancient Roman Empire, or what we likely think of when we think of ‘Ancient Rome’ (circa the time of Christ) with its legions of Roman soldiers with their double blade short swords and their bright red crested helmets, or the bustling streets full of toga wearing (myth?) officials and merchants, definitely saw its heyday well before the traditional date of the fall of Rome around 476AD (Sarris, 2011).

Late into the 4th century AD and beyond what was once considered definitely Roman territory and part of the Roman Empire was well and truly an assorted patchwork of migrated (mostly by force) barbarian people groups. These groups, many of which are familiar in name, included but are not limited to Visigoths, Angels, Saxons, Franks, Vandals and Ostrogoth’s, and were more or less under a form of Roman authority or leadership, or more or less were subject to a form of Roman authority or leadership.

In the decades leading up to the sacking of Rome, Northern people groups had been migrating their way into the Roman empire in exchange for military support, particularly in defence against, and protection from the Huns (Sarris, 2011).

It was during this tumultuous period that Christianity was transformed from the humble, massively persecuted minority described in scripture, into standard Western Religion. This large patchwork of different ethnic groups that formed the Western Roman Empire and the rest, underwent a rapid mass conversion to Christianity which started almost exclusively by the efforts of one man. Arguably one of the last great rulers of the classic Roman Empire, Emperor Constantine (Pohlsander, 2004). Again this depends on what you mean by ‘conversion’ and ‘Christianity’. But essentially from the reign of Constantine onward, Christianity spread steadily and fairly quickly throughout Rome with the help of others including St Augustine (354-430AD) and Emperor Justinian (527-565AD)(Cook, 2012).

Throughout this entire period and much later, we should understand that from the perspective of the people of the time, this was the Roman Empire, it was perceived to be the continuation of the Roman Empire and no one ever really thought of themselves as Byzantines. It is distinguished from the Ancient Roman Empire in various ways by historians, for specific reasons including the structure of the Government, religious affairs and other things, but no one living during this time would have considered it anything other than the Roman Empire or “Holy Roman Empire”.

Constantine and Christianity

Constantine converted to Christianity shortly after his accession to leadership. He was not hostile to Christians previously to this (in contrast to many who preceded him), but did not officially convert until around 312. In short, over his lifetime he oversaw the rapid expansion of Christianity and explicit tolerance of all other religious (or pagan) practices within the empire. Accounts seem to vary as to the sincerity of Constantine’s commitment, however it seems clear that he had little to gain from ‘pretending’. There is no dispute to the influence and importance of his religious convictions on his leadership and the expansion of Christianity throughout the empire (as was the norm for Roman Government in general, even before Christianity became state official)(Pohlsander, 2004).

Simply lifting the heavy persecution of Christianity was enough to mark its flourishing beginnings. More than this, Emperor Constantine poured funds into the Christian religion, exempt religious officials from certain other civil obligations, built extensive and prestigious buildings, produced Christian inspired currency, and more (Pohlsander, 2004). Indeed “during the thirty years of his reign, more change took place in the status, structure, and beliefs of the Christian Church than during any  previous period of its history” (Drake, 2005). Although I would argue that Christ’s resurrection and the spread of the early Church was also slightly influential (but whatever).

Nonetheless, Constantine was a big deal for Christianity.

Of course, as good as all this was for the Christian religion and the salvation of countless souls from the Lord’s righteous Judgment, we can always trust humans to really humanize the whole situation. The rise in funding and status of Christianity inevitably brought with it a rise in those who would embrace it for financial gain, and other benefits. Thus we see what eventually came to be a rather unofficial (but quite serious) difference between “the Church of power and the Church of piety” (Stark, 2009). Not only this of course, but general disagreements from within the Church itself on many matters. Long story short Christianity became the official religion of the ‘Roman empire’, but not necessarily with all the right outcomes. Fast forward from here and you end up with a Catholic dominated West (Holy Roman Empire), and the Latin orthodox dominated East (Byzantium)… sort of (Verkholantsev, 2012).

The evidence appears strong enough that Constantine was sincere in all of his efforts to promote and expand Christianity, whether for the faith itself, or for the empire, or both (Drake, 2005). Whatever the end result, I would like to think he meant well. One important decision was moving the capital of the empire from Rome itself to Constantinople. This move has generated mixed reviews from historians. However, from a strategic military point of view, Constantinople had numerous advantages which I’ll get into in a later post (Stark, 2009).

During this time we see the rise of what we would today call orthodox Catholicism, orthodox Greek and perhaps other variations of these including some cults. It was during the time of Constantine and shortly after when much of the orthodoxy of the Roman Catholic church appeared to be formalised, including matters such as the doctrine of the trinity and celibacy of the clergy.

As previously mentioned, the Dark ages of this time, were nowhere near as ‘dark’ as we’re led to believe. This myth, perpetuated by unqualified sources, does not represent the view of the majority of Middle ages scholarship. The middle ages saw the advent of such things as horse-drawn agriculture, many military technologies and of course the printing press (Stark, 2009).

Finally, the most important thing to point out is that at its peak, largely thanks to Constantine, Christendom looked like this:

But, it was not to last.

In the East, just beyond the red sea a challenger was on the horizon.

In 570AD, Muhammad, born near Mecca, would go on to become the founder and leader of Islam, and what is now the Muslim world. He claimed to be the last prophet of the one true god (Allah), and that the only path to salvation was ‘total submission’…

“I was ordered to fight all men until they say ‘There is no god but Allah.’ ” – Muhammad

Next post: Arabian Knights – The rise of Islam

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Cook, W. S. 2012. Saint Augustine and the Spread of Christianity. Western Journal of Black Studies. 36:3. 220-227.

Drake, H. A. 2005. The Impact of Constantine on Christianity. Cambridge University Press

Pohlsander, H. A. 2004. Emperor Constantine. Taylor and Francis.

Sarris, P. 2011. Empires of Faith: The fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam. Oxford Scholarship Online.

Stark, R. 2009. God’s battalions: The case for the Crusades, HarperCollins Publishers.

Verkholantsev, J. 2012. St. Jerome, Apostle to the Slavs, and the Roman Slavonic Rite. Speculum. 87:1. 37-61. DOI:10.1017/S003871341100385X