World History 1 152 - 10.1.2 The Rule of Roman Christianity

The Christian Church attracted a large influx of new members during the reign of Constantine. The Edict of Milan, issued in 313, allowed citizens to worship any deity they wished, but it was mainly intended to embrace Christians living in the empire who were now given back their confiscated property and legal rights. Christianity was not made the official religion, but the edict effectively ended any state-sanctioned persecution of its adherents within the empire’s borders. The religion’s new privileged status brought about profound changes for its institutions and their relationship to the imperial government.

Emperors generally did not interfere in the self-regulation of the church, except for religious belief. They exercised this control chiefly by organizing ecumenical councils, meetings of bishops to discuss religious doctrine. (The word “ecumenical” comes from the Greek oikoumene, meaning the entire inhabited world.) Ecumenical councils brought together bishops from the Roman East and West and issued decisions designed to be adopted universally. They were venues for hammering out matters of Christian orthodoxy, addressing questions of Jesus’s divinity, and eliminating emerging heretical movements within the church.

In 325, for example, Constantine convened the first ecumenical council, the Council of Nicaea, to settle the question of Jesus’s divine nature and his relationship to God. The bishops were most concerned with addressing the Arians, followers of the priest Arius, who held that Jesus was created out of nothing but had a beginning. The bishops at the council worried that this thinking detracted from Jesus’s divinity and after much debate decided against the Arians. They adopted the Nicene Creed, a statement of dogma that declared Jesus was “begotten, not made” and was “consubstantial” with God, expressly embracing his divinity. These types of religious debates remained at the center of the numerous ecumenical councils thereafter, and emperors sometimes used them to exercise control over church-related matters. But while the emperors self-styled themselves as priestly rulers, the bishops sometimes contested this role, and emperors then had to compete with them for religious authority.

The steady bureaucratization of the empire made its governance more complicated because it meant that power could only be usurped at various levels of government. One way in which emperors attempted to balance local, regional, and imperial power was by formally codifying laws. For example, in 429, the emperor Theodosius II established a commission to compile what became known as the Theodosian Code, a single publication containing all laws issued after 312 CE from across the empire. This code was the first attempt to create a unified system of government for the empire since the days of the Republic. It further solidified Christianity in Roman society because it featured laws that adhered to Christian beliefs and practice. It also brought about a transformation of social morals and placed power in the hands of the church to police morality, a practice that had not been seen in antiquity.

The Theodosian Code represented a trend of emperors attempting to address religious issues through laws and edicts. Constantine, for instance, seems to have banned animal sacrifice, a major feature of traditional Roman religion, though it was already in decline by this time. In several imperial edicts, notably the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 that made Nicene Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire, Theodosius I attempted to suppress religious controversy outside the church, treating pagans and heretics (those holding unorthodox beliefs) as threats to the imperial state. The First Council of Constantinople, convened in 381, reestablished the Nicene Creed and addressed the topic of the Holy Spirit, suggesting that the problem of Arius’s sympathizers had not completely disappeared. Jewish people were also viewed skeptically during this time but were not a major concern to imperial authorities. Finally, responding to an appeal from the Christian population of Athens, the emperor Justinian closed that city’s philosophical schools in 529. The dismantling of pagan temples, removal of statues of pagan divinities, and discontinuation of traditional practice and priesthoods throughout the empire were a common pattern of authority during this time (Figure 10.9).

A picture of a bronze-colored statue of a winged female is shown on a round, tiered pedestal. Her large feathered wings extend above her head and she wears a long sleeveless dress with ruffles swirling below the waist. Her arms extend above her head and she has short hair. Necklaces hang from her neck and one of her bare feet stands on a golden sphere. Her other bare foot extends out toward the back. Shadows form on both sides of the pedestal from her figure on the yellow ombre walls behind the statue.
Figure 10.9 Made by the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova in the early nineteenth century, this bronze figure of a winged Victory atop a globe may resemble a statue that once stood outside the Roman Senate house. As a representation of pagan worship, that statue was removed twice by Christian emperors, in 357 and 382 CE, a decision that was controversial among many pagan senators at the time. (credit: modification of work “Winged Victory by Antonio Canova” by “Daderot”/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

The relationships between pagans and Christians were unquestionably strained. Elite pagans could still pursue a career and hold public office, as did the noted intellectuals Libanius and Symmachus. These public figures viewed their Christian counterparts, such as the theologian Gregory of Nazianzus, as holding the same general philosophical assumptions as themselves, so they could debate religion together. Yet episodes of violence also occurred in the cities of the empire where bishops wielded both religious and political power. The murder of the influential pagan scholar and teacher Hypatia in Alexandria in 415 demonstrates how a bishop could wield extralegal authority. Bishop Cyril viewed Hypatia, who had a large friendship network of Christians and pagans, as a political threat, and he was able to convince the Christian populace to attack and kill her. This secured his own position as a substantial political and religious authority in the city.

Link to Learning

Learn more about the pagan teacher and scholar Hypatia of Alexandria in this video. Hypatia’s teaching of mathematics and philosophy was viewed as a threat to the Christian order in the city, which ultimately led to her demise.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax