It is impossible to open up a discussion about the Byzantine Empire without talking about Constantinople. It’s impossible to discuss Constantinople without talking about Constantine the Great. And, of course, it’s impossible to discuss Constantine the Great without talking about Christianity.
Here are, in no particular order, the five things best known about Constantine the Great:
1. He founded Constantinople.
2. He was the first Christian Emperor.
3. He ended the persecution of Christians.
4. He started his move for control of the Roman Empire as the lowest of the four Emperors.
5. He won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge after being told he’d win under the sign of the cross.
In order to properly understand these five things, though, we need to go back quite a bit farther. Specifically to Alexander the Great’s invasion of the Levant. But, since this is me, I’m actually going to go back to the very beginning of civilization.
Standard operating procedure for invasion and conquest in the ancient world was to assimilate a conquered culture in to an empire. This was by no means simple, but it was still reasonably easy. Armies were usually small and comprised of society’s elite, due to the fact that only those with money could afford the necessary equipment. For most people, then, a foreign invasion and occupation didn’t actually change much of anything. They were simply paying their taxes to a different ruler.
Moreover, cultural assimilation was a fairly simple thing. If you consider ancient Mesopotamia, the various cultures in the area largely grew from a common stock. Successive waves of imperial change didn’t really mean much at all when it came to cultural shifts. It’s not until we see empires from different areas clashing that we really begin to see massive shifts.
By this I basically mean the Persians. The Babylonians did it to a certain extent, and Cyrus the Great probably learned a few things from them, but the Babylonians had nothing on their conquerors.
Then, of course, we have the whirlwind world tour of Alexander the Great. He didn’t just bring conquest, he brought culture. The post-Alexander world was Hellenized. Alexander founded cities and colonies and convinced his new subjects that they were better off taking on a new culture. This was largely done through religion, of all things.
Polytheistic societies are largely accepting of external gods. If you can handle your own massive pantheon, the idea of some other pantheon is that much easier to accept. Moreover, pantheons are largely separated in to the same categories. There’s the chief, the one who handles war, the one who handles the hearth, the trickster, etc. So the Greeks showed up and said, “Hey, you’ve got these gods. They look a lot like our gods. How’s about we combine them?”
It worked. In most cases.
The big exception, we discover without much surprise, was ancient Israel. The independent, monotheistic Jewish residents of that land had no truck with polytheism. They caused a lot of trouble. Not really for Alexander, but certainly for the Seleucids and the Ptolemys.
When the Romans came to the Levant, in fact, Israel was independent. The Maccabean Revolt had allowed the Jewish people to cast off foreign occupation and no one really wanted to mess around with them any more. It wasn’t until the Romans showed up that anyone could. And even the Romans were careful with Israel. Rome basically claimed suzerainty over Israel without claiming full sovereignty. Rome wasn’t really making that arrangement any more by the time they put Herod the Great in charge. But there were some thorny issues with Israel.
Basically, Rome asked its subjects to do three things: pay taxes, accept the Roman pantheon, and worship the Emperor. The Jews weren’t big fans of the first one and refused to do either of the other two. The Roman authorities had very few options to deal with that. They could withdraw, but that would be a major black eye. They could try to force it, but that would require tying up a lot of resources in a tiny corner of the Empire. So the best option was to make the Jews an exception, play up the suzerain theater aspect of the whole thing, and go on about their business. This worked for a bit over a century.
Then two things happened: the Bar Kochba Revolt and the emergence of Christianity.
The Bar Kochba Revolt is basically completely outside of the scope of this particular project. The emergence of Christianity, however, is kind of important. So we shall speak no more about the former and go in to great detail about the latter.
The issue of Christianity as an offshoot of Judaism is a complicated topic at best. The Jewish folk, as we all know, wanted none of it. Some Christian factions would have been plenty happy getting rid of the Jews. But they still wanted the deal that the Jews had with the Romans where they didn’t have to do the whole worshiping the Emperor thing. The Romans, meanwhile, looked at the whole god the father and god the son and random indwelling spirit thing and said, “You know what this looks a lot like? Polytheism.”
And, at the very least, the Romans realized that the Christian thing didn’t have a whole hell of a lot to do with Judaism. So they considered Christians to fall under the same set of rules that all the non-Jewish Roman subjects did. This was a major bone of contention, since the Christians didn’t want to and the Romans didn’t give a rat’s ass what the Christians thought either way. There was a dangerous precedence forming, after all.
Now, there is a certain amount of wild speculation here. Quite frankly, I’m simply seeing some threads coming together, but to the best of my knowledge there is very little to no scholarship on this particular subject. I strongly suspect that it would be rather difficult to study, as we don’t have much in the way of original source documents on the expansion of Christianity. The most famous documents, of course, are the Pauline Epistles, but Paul’s mention of rival factions is always for the purpose of winning people over to his version of orthodoxy and not for the benefit of the historian many generations removed.
The closest thing I can think of to a work that would have considered this is Robin Lane Fox’s Pagans & Christians. Unfortunately, my knowledge of that particular book is limited to a review, an abstract, and that time I started reading it because I was fascinated by said review and abstract, but found it so tedious and boring that I could barely pick it up. I keep thinking I should go back and try again, but then I realize that my paint hasn’t peeled yet and I should really keep an eye on that. Also, lest any doubt remains in your mind, I harbor no intention of submitting this series as a thesis in an accredited Masters’ program…
Anyway, there’s a certain significance to the idea of getting the get out of worshiping the Emperor free card. It has surprisingly little to do with integrity and everything to do with persecution.
Ancient religion was communal (which isn’t to say that modern religion isn’t, but the idea of having a personal relationship with Jupiter is significantly more laughable than the idea that I have a personal relationship with Barack Obama. It’s not just that things don’t work like that, it’s that the world wasn’t designed to work that way) to an extreme. Every city had its patron deity, every nation its pantheon, every season its particular gods. If there was feast it meant the gods were pleased. If there was famine it meant they were pissed. Armies refused to march if they believed the portents indicated the gods were against them. Religion was, in short, a big deal.
Since religion was communal, that meant that pleasing the gods was the responsibility of all people in the community. Those who didn’t pull their own weight were asking the gods to reign down destruction on everyone. They were, by definition, enemies of the people and the state. Those who did not participate were justifiably (given the parameters) hated by the rest of society. They also created instability, so it was in the government’s interest to do something about it.
With the Jews it was largely possible to let them have their special dispensation and look the other way. Israel was a tiny corner of the Empire. Even though the Jewish people had spread, there weren’t that many of them and they weren’t interested in expansion so much as maintaining their purity as the Chosen People. They could be left to their weird rituals, as they’d already proven themselves an adamant, troublesome lot even in the best of times, but they were a tiny and insular troublesome lot.
Christianity, however, was not interested in staying isolated. In its expansionism, coupled with its insistence on getting preferential treatment, Christianity presented itself as a clear threat to the stability of the Roman Empire. So the Empire treated Christians as it would any dissenting, potentially destabilizing force. I speak, of course, of the persecution of Christians.
I’ve already gone way farther than I want to without actually getting to the starting line, so I’ll have to leave most of this until next time, especially since I’ll actually get to Constantine the Great, which will allow me to explain in excruciating detail how much I absolutely despise Eusebius. But I can’t leave on a complete cliffhanger, so I’ll say this:
There was absolutely nothing special about the persecution of Christians.
The Roman authorities saw Christianity as a potentially destabilizing force in exactly the same way it saw criminals and revolutionaries as a destabilizing force. The only reason we’re lead to believe the stories of the Christian martyrs are special is because we have a lot of them. And they’re mostly torture porn, which is always a popular genre for reasons I do not and never will understand.
Consider, however, the most famous story of Roman brutality that didn’t make the Bible: the story of Spartacus. His revolt seriously threatened the stability of the Roman Republic. When the rebels were finally brought to heel the 6000 survivors were crucified along the Appian Way in a line stretching from Rome to Capua. The Romans did not mess around. And they really didn’t like dissent.
Now if y'all don't mind, I'm going to wrap this up and head out. I hear The Criminal Kind is doing a show in Dallas.
Interestingly enough, although the great centers of civilization are Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus River Valley, and China, we really only see civilizations clashing on epic scales in the Middle East. China and India were simply too isolated, and managed to develop without too much outside pressure.
Egypt, too, was protected by the Sinai Peninsula on one side and the Sahara on the other. During the early stages of empire development no one messed with Egypt, so it was able to develop fairly peacefully. By the time there was a sufficient external pressure, Egypt’s reputation was enough to scare off most enemies. The Hittites were the first to really threaten Egypt, but it wasn’t until the Pesians that an external force could bring Egypt to heel. Of course, the Archaemenids swept all before them over the course of about fifty years and held their borders for over two centuries.
This makes it all the more impressive that a twenty-something general from an upstart Greek city-state managed to humiliate the Persian Empire over the course of just a few years.
New word time, everyone. Gather round!
A sovereign, as we all know (hopefully), is a ruler who has complete control over a given society. A suzerain is an external ruler who has control over a client state’s external relations and to whom is owed a tribute and troops when necessary. The suzerain’s client state still has theoretical autonomy within its own borders.
In the case of Israel and Rome, the Roman Empire ruled Israel as a client state, which was a fairly common arrangement in the early going for the Roman Republic, but didn’t so much happen later. There was a Roman governmental body that, theoretically, ruled alongside a self-governing Jewish state apparatus. That particular Jewish ruler, however, was basically a puppet. The first Jewish king to rule in this way was Herod the Great. The Roman Senate declared him the “King of the Jews.”
And suddenly a bunch of details in the Gospels make a hell of a lot more sense. There’s nothing particularly earth-shattering, just a lot of stuff where it’s like, “Oh, hey, I get it now…”
In case anyone’s wondering, right before I wrote that particular sentence I paused, then took a deep breath while my brain let out a long, “Fuuuuuuuuck.” This is not an easy topic to handle quickly.
They weren’t, of course, referred to as “Christians” right off the bat. But for the sake of simplicity…
This, by the by, puts a whole different spin on a lot of the early arguments over the nature of Jesus and the emerging doctrine of the Trinity. If the focal point of the issue stops being, “How do we properly understand the nature of god?” and starts being, “How do we get around those pesky Roman laws and not get our heads chopped off?” a lot of rather esoteric arguments begin to make perfect sense. For instance, the arguments over whether it’s necessary to adopt Jewish customs to be a proper follower of Jesus become purely secular. And the debates over whether Jesus was a god or a man or a man-god become about trying to maintain the sheen of monotheism in the face of skeptical outside observers.
So consider this possibility for the moment. The earliest doctrines of Christianity were formed in an attempt to do one thing: convince Rome to allow them to have the same deal as the Jews where they didn’t have to worship the Emperor. This doesn’t negate Christianity, but it certainly makes the story more complicated.
I actually owe a debt to a Presbyterian minister for this particular insight. It basically goes like this: there were a bunch of different people with a bunch of different attitudes about what the whole Jesus thing meant. In the early years of Christianity there was no written account and the word spread in irregular waves through various people with their own interpretations, motivations, and motivations. Paul was the most persuasive of these and the best at arguing down dissent.
This, of course, doesn’t mean he was right. Consider Glenn Beck’s confusingly large following…
This, again, operates in contrast to modern American Christianity. If I don’t buy in the damnation be on my own head. Although there are times we still get the flavor of that old time religion…
Seriously. What are we up to now, Saw XIII?
Crucifixion, of course, being a truly horrific form of capital punishment, the entire purpose of which was to be brutal and highly public so as to send a simple message: “Do not fuck with us. You will not like the results."
Although the most extreme example of this probably came in the 15th Century with Vlad Tepes, better known as Vlad the Impaler, and with good cause. In 1462 the Ottomans invaded Wallachia as part of a long-term conflict with Hungary (which, yes, I could go on at length about), only to find thousands of bodies, most of which were probably Turkish POWs, impaled on stakes along around Targoviste. It’s said that Mehmet II was so sickened that he turned back and left the invasion to a subordinate.
This is actually somewhat hard to believe, as just nine years earlier Mehmet had conquered Constantinople and seen any number of atrocities during that invasion. Whether the Sultan could handle it or not, the sight apparently freaked his army out and Vlad was able to win against stiff odds.