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Which Benefits Did Ancient Emperors Experience From Christianity?
Christianity originated in the territory of the large Roman Empire. It should be understood that if one analyzes the history of Christianity not from the point of view of theology, the success story of this religion is surprising, because early Christianity had the same conditions as other sects and cults of the Roman Empire, but managed to become the dominant religion of the country and gain the international importance. It is known that from the time of the birth of Christianity till the fourth century, emperors with varying strength tried to destroy this religion, but in the fourth century, Constantine came to power and changed history forever. One of the most important aspects that made Constantine so crucial in world’s history in general and for Western world particular is his attitude towards Christianity.
Jesus Christ was a Jew who began to teach disciples and convince to believe in a single God. His lifelong teaching did not go contrary to the basic ideas laid down in the Old Testament, and therefore modern reading of his life and the New Testament is losing from the fact that one often forget how much Jesus was connected with Judaism (Cohen). His disciples were malignantly strata of the population who could rely on respect and recognition only after death, while the social installation of the Roman Empire did not have a particular sympathy for the ordinary population and slaves, who were an essential part of the wealth and prosperity of the empire.
After the death of Christ, his torch is picked up by the Apostle Paul, who begins his journey from the eastern borders of the empire and moves to the western edge. During his trip, Paul preached, taught and familiar a large number of people with a new religion. This happened in the first century of the contemporary era, at a time when Christianity began to institutionalize. Like any other religion at the beginning of its inception, Christianity does not have a single canon, where one can check what is right and canonical and what contradicts the idea itself. At the same time, it was Paul who achieved a clear break in Christianity from Judaism, which allowed a large number of pagans to get acquainted and accept this religion (MacMullen). One of the essential features of this religion was that it vehemently refused from idolatry (Chadwick). Thus, both the cult of the emperor and the various religious cults that existed on the territory of the Roman Empire practiced holidays and ceremonies, in which the inhabitants of the empire should worship the image of the emperor or gods. It was crucial for the identity of the population of the Roman Empire and the authorities strictly supervised those processes. Since this rule contradicts one of the foundations of early Christianity, Christians refuse to obey this ritual and by doing that they become visible to the general public. Also, this behavior is condemned both by the inhabitants of the country and by the authorities, which is why the persecution of the first Christians begins (Chadwick). Close to the arrival of Constantine, various emperors treated the problem of the popularity and power of Christianity differently and used different degrees of prosecution and penalties.
From the first centuries, the concept of the “martyr of faith” comes to the Christian worldview, which is ready to endure torture, imprisonment and even death for one’s religion (MacMullen). So, until now, Christianity is honored by a large number of martyrs killed in the first centuries. Since the first Christians were mostly marginalized groups and slaves, and Christianity promised happiness and peace after death, life seemed only a transitional stage that does not depend on people and their actions as the citizens of the Empire: the system did not appreciate them and did not provide opportunities for social mobility, while the faith promised tranquility and happiness after death, subject to relatively simple rules that did not need any status or financial resources. Examples of valor and devotion to the belief in salvation after death can be considered as one of the examples of how a smart emperor can use his people’s ability to die for faith in own interests or interests of the Empire.
Since Emperor Constantine came to power in the fourth century, it is better to realize the life and structure in the Roman Empire, which made such a spread of the Christian religion and its position in society. The Roman Empire occupied an incredibly vast territory inhabited by various nationalities and ethnic groups that professed different religions and cults (MacMullen). However, the Roman Empire managed to provide its territory with excellent roads and places for sleep and food for all who travel around the country (Cohen). This fact, by the way, explains why the apostle Paul managed to move so successfully and quite freely from east to west.
In addition, the society of the empire was divided into so-called collegia, which can be separated into two types: on religious and professional grounds (Gibbon). The collegium was a group of people that included more than three people. These collegia met, discussed problems and deeds. All citizens of the empire had such an opportunity to unite and socialize. Jews joined in religious communities on the same principle of collegia, although they were structured according to the requirements of their faith. Since the Jews practiced Judaism that was permitted in the Roman Empire, they got an almost autonomous position, having the opportunity to appoint leaders, distribute funds and the like (Gibbon). Judaism was not a closed religion, that means that anyone could start to confess Judaism and become a member of the community, but the features of the faith and the unity of the Jews removed them from the public view of pagans who did not have such a monotheistic religion. However, it should be remembered that the Roman Empire had two official languages of communication – Ancient Greek and Latin, allowing to communicate with the majority of the inhabitants of the entire vast empire (Chadwick). The Jews of the Roman Empire used Greek in their daily life, because of which their contacts with other members of the population did not have any language barriers (Gibbon).
Thanks to the fact that the Roman Empire united an incredible number of different peoples and ethnic groups, the emperors could not build a country united around an ethnic identity, demanding the creation of the political unity. So, this was possible because of the roads that allowed relatively rapid movement, the existence of the major multinational cities that were centers of cultural development. It is worthwhile to understand that such multicultural cities were not an artificial formation, but a consequence of historical processes and cohabitation of representatives of different nationalities were not affected by xenophobia (Curran). So, the great Roman Empire needed political unity. By the beginning of the fourth century, Christianity, which during previous times was treated as a kind of Judaism, “hid” in collegia which, due to good infrastructure and lack of language barriers, had the opportunity to communicate, share information to each other so that the western parts of the country owned the same knowledge as the eastern ones (MacMullen). This fact explains the lack of attention of ancient Roman philosophers and chronicles after the birth and emergence of Christianity, because this faith was perceived as a branch of Judaism on a par with other young sects and cults, and the development of Christianity under the protection of collegia practically concealed this belief almost to the end of the first century (MacMullen). Since Christians have been persecuted for centuries, they go to the “underground,” which allows opponents of the new faith to accuse them not only of renouncing idolatry, and therefore of the emperor’s betrayal, but also of confessing taboo practices in which Christians are allegedly engaged in catacombs and undergrounds without strangers eye (McGiffert).
Christianity was still a young religion, which was developing and creating its canon, but by that time the foundations and importance of the New Testament, which teaches the basics of Christian ethics, have become understandable. At this period, the Roman Empire begins to depend less on slaves, because of which the marginalized communities were increased by former slaves who were seeking for a religion that would promise them Salvation. Consequently, Christianity offers a religion that was not tied to ethnicity, social status, origin, residence; in contrast, it promises happiness after death, demanding only obedience (MacMullen). If one analyzes the Christians detached, then the idea that Constantine saw in Christians the perfect citizens of the empire who worry only about saving their souls but not making riots and can die to defend their faith seems logical. So, one of the reasons for the conversion of Constantine to Christianity can be considered political motives.
Emperor Constantine managed to come to power in a country that for almost 20 years suffered from various civil wars of varying complexity and duration, caused by a large number of pretenders to the imperial throne (Grant). The country suffered financial losses and began to lose its power, because of which Constantine was supposed to work for the unification of the Empire, guarding the borders and increasing the army by actively mobilizing barbarians. Emperor Constantine went down in history as the first Christian emperor, and the history of the Roman Empire after his reign is considered to be Christian.
It is known that Constantine was a pagan and was baptized only before his death, but regardless the last fact, the debate continues (Grant). However, during the war with Maxentius, Constantine had a vision of a single God who ordered him to draw crosses on the shields of his army. Constantine obeyed the voice and did it, and the war ended with the victory of Constantine, the capture of Rome and the unification of the empire (Curran). At the same time, this story is not an argument for historians while thinking about why Constantine changed the fate of Christianity (Curran).
There is a second version, which claims that the Emperor killed his wife and son because of what he feared revenge on the fate (Harris). He appealed to a large number of priests and figures of various cults, who all proclaimed that the fate would find him. According to this version, only a Christian priest said that the Constantine could be saved (Harris). Obviously, this version also can not serve as serious proof.
At the same time, in 313, the Milan Edict arose, which proclaimed religious tolerance in the Roman empires, which allowed Christians to profess their faith openly on equal terms with all other religions of the Roman Empire (MacMullen). In 319, Constantine exempts the Christian church from the need to pay taxes and perform public duties (Grant). In 321, a law emerges that allows Christians to own land and use it for the needs of the church and the church community (Grant). The process of destroying pagan temples throughout the empire begins, and Constantine’s explicit references to Christianity become apparent (McGiffert). Subsequently, the Emperor begins the active construction of a vast number of Christian churches throughout the entire empire (Curran). It is important to note that Constantine allocated a significant number of funds for the building of the “new Jerusalem”, a series of churches in the city of Jerusalem, built on the ground, which plays an important role in Christianity (MacMullen). Before Constantine came to power, Rome lost the importance of the center of the empire, so, Constantine’s decision to make the capital a city on the border was not a violation of the customs (Gibbon). Constantine understood that the empire has weakened, and Rome is located far from the strategic points, so the capital on the border with the enemy makes it possible to control the situation better. So, Constantine built the city of Constantinople, which was created with a large number of Christian churches, which, showed the level of engagement of the emperor in this religion (Curran). It is worth noting that Constantine took an active part in serious quarrels of various branches of Christianity of the time: the convocation of the Council of Nicea in 325, at which the Arians were banned (McGiffert).
As a result, the history is seeing a ruler, who gained power in a difficult time, but realized that the only opportunity to strengthen the country is to unite around a common identity. Since there was no ethnic identity, Constantine puts Christianity at the core of the identity of the Roman Empire, although this decision at the beginning of the fourth century was unexpected, because Christians were less represented in the country than other religions. However, Christianity preached humility and obedience to the challenges of the fate and orders of the emperor till the moment, when Emperor break the rules of religion. Thus, this religion promised not only the opportunity to unite the country, because Christianity did not deal with origin, ethnicity, but also create a country in which the population has no interest in creating riots and rebellion because people are busy saving their souls (McGiffert).
Consequently, Christianity arose as a trend of a small group, but at the time that was most favorable to it, Constantine managed to turn it into a religion of the empire, which led to the emergence of a single political identity of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire. Both to Constantine and the subsequent emperors of the Roman and Byzantine empires, Christianity helped to manage the people of the country, who had to fulfill the basic commandments of religion. Since the religion implied complete obedience, a certain asceticism in everyday life and a lack of desire to rebel against the emperors, the rulers received a country that was subservient and, moreover, could fight with other countries or parties that did not profess the Christian faith.
Chadwick, Henry. The Church In Ancient Society. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004.
Cohen, Shaye I.D. “Why Did Christianity Succeed? – Legimitization Under Constantine.” Pbs.Org, 1998, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/why/legitimization.html.
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Grant, Michael. The Emperor Constantine. London, Phoenix Giant, 1998.
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