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11: The Late Empire and Christianity

  • Page ID
    17057
  • Rome underwent half a century of crisis in the middle of the third century CE. Beset along its borders and hobbled by constant infighting, the Empire was at real risk of collapse for decades. It did not collapse, however, and in fact enjoyed a resurgence of a sort that held the Roman state together until the end of the fifth century (the western half of the Empire “fell” in 476 CE). In fact, the period between the end of the five good emperors and the collapse of Rome was much more complex than one of simple decline and weakness, and even when the city of Rome could not defend itself, Roman civilization left an enormous, permanent impression on Western Civilization. Perhaps most importantly, what began as an obscure cult in Roman-ruled Judea eventually became one of the great world religions - Christianity - thanks to its success in spreading throughout the Roman Empire before the western Empire's collapse.

    • 11.1: Crisis and Recovery
      Major crises affected the Empire from 235 to 284 CE. The basis of the crises was increasing pressure from foreign invaders on the Roman borders coupled with political instability within the Empire itself. The emperor Severus Alexander was murdered in 235 CE. All of the emperors to follow for the next fifty years were murdered or died in battle as well, save one; there were twenty-six emperors in those fifty years, and only one died of natural causes.
    • 11.2: Diocletian
      This period of crisis ended with the ascension of the emperor Diocletian in 284 CE. He not only managed to survive for twenty years after taking the throne, he also reorganized the Empire and pulled it back from the brink. Recognizing that the sheer size of the Empire was a detriment to its effective governance, Diocletian decided to share power with a co-emperor: Diocletian ruled the eastern half of the Empire and his co-emperor Maximian ruled the west.
    • 11.3: Constantine
      Constantine did away with the system of co-emperors (although it would re-emerge after his death), but otherwise he left things as they had been under Diocletian's reforms. The eastern and western halves of the Empire still had separate administrations and he kept up the size and organization of the army. He also took a decisive step toward stabilizing the economy by issuing new currency based on a fixed gold standard - the solidus.
    • 11.4: Religion - Roman Faiths and the birth of Christianity
      While the official Roman gods were venerated across the Empire, Roman elites had no objections to the worship of other deities, and indeed many Romans (elites and commoners alike) eagerly embraced foreign faiths. Many Romans were attracted to mystery religions, cults that promised spiritual salvation to their members. These mystery religions shared a belief that the universe was full of magical charms that could lead to spiritual salvation or eternal life itself.
    • 11.5: The Jews and Jesus
      The Roman territory of Palestine was a thorn in the Rome’s' side, thanks to the unshakable opposition of the Jews. Palestine suffered from heavy taxation and deeply-felt resentment among its population toward the Romans. One key point of contention was that the Jews refused to pay lip service to the divinity of the emperors; the Romans insisted that their subjects participate in symbolic rituals acknowledging the primacy of the emperors. The Jews were strict monotheists, they would not do so.
    • 11.6: Early Christianity
      Christianity thus at least potentially threatened the hierarchical nature of Roman society itself. Likewise, it inherited from Judaism a strict monotheism that refused to accept the worship of the Roman emperors. What made it even more threatening than Judaism, however, was that Christianity actively sought out new converts. Roman authorities were thus already very much inclined to be suspicious of the Christians as potential rabble-rousers.
    • 11.7: Early Christian Organization
      Before Constantine's conversion, Christianity had expanded through missionary work, which succeeded in founding congregations across the Empire but did not seriously disrupt polytheism or the Empire’s religious diversity. Imperial sponsorship changed that because it linked secular power to Christian identity. Following Constantine's conversion, being a Christian became a way to get ahead in the Roman power structure, and over time it became a liability to remain a polytheist.
    • 11.8: Christianity's Relationship with Non-Christian Religions
      All across the Empire, massive church buildings were erected by emperors. Right from the beginning of “official” Christianity, Constantine financed construction of huge churches, including the Basilica of St. Peter in what is today the Vatican. The traditional Roman public buildings, including forums, theaters, bathhouses and so on, were often neglected in favor of churches, and many temples to Roman gods and other public buildings were repurposed as churches.
    • 11.9: Orthodoxy and Heresy
      While it certainly clarified the beliefs of the most powerful branch of the institutional church, as the Council of Nicaea defined the official orthodoxy, it guaranteed that there would always be those who rejected that orthodoxy in the name of a different theological interpretation. Likewise, the practical issues of lingual and cultural differences undermined the universalism ("Catholicism") of the Christian church. Those differences and the diversity of belief would only grow over time.
    • 11.10: Monasticism and Christian Culture
      Near the end of the third century, a new Christian movement emerged that was to have major ramifications for the history of the Christian world: monasticism. Originally, monasticism was tied to asceticism, meaning self-denial, following the example of an Egyptian holy man named Antony. In about 280, Antony sold his goods and retreated to the desert to contemplate the divine, eschewing all worldly goods in imitation of the poverty of Christ.
    • 11.11: Christian Learning
      Once Christianity was institutionalized, church leaders generally came around to the importance of classical learning because it proved useful for administration. A vast Greco-Roman literature existed describing governance, science, engineering, etc., all of which was necessary in the newly-Christian Empire. A kind of uneasy balance was struck between studying classical learning, especially things like rhetoric, while warning against the spiritual danger of being seduced by its non-Christian mes
    • 11.12: Conclusion
      Ultimately, after the western part of the Roman Empire fell in the late fifth century, it was the Christian church that carried on at least parts of Roman civilization, learning, and culture. One of the historical ironies of this period of history is that even though Rome's Empire began to decline and (eventually) collapse politically, it lived on thanks to a ideas and beliefs that originally arisen in the Roman context - it lived on ideologically and spiritually.

    Thumbanil: Bust of Emperor Constantine I, Roman, 4th century. (Public Domain via Wikipedia).

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