The conversion of Constantine, the Christian Empire

The history of the Roman Empire and Europe changed dramatically in 312 AD as a result of the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity.
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| 26/10/2019 | Last update:


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Constantine’s conversion to Christianity (320 AD)

The 4th century was a turning point in the history of the Roman Empire and, indeed, of the European continent. A personal decision marked the Empire permanently. Emperor Constantine, in 312, decided to convert to Christianity. He adopted Christianity as a substitute for the still official Roman paganism. From 312 onward, Christianity became the Emperor’s religion, and a few years later it became the official religion of the Empire. This fact was decisive and marked the beginning of a new historical era that presented itself under the same problem: the inability to separate political and religious power.

The second turning point of the 4th century came when Emperor Theodosius the Great made the historic decision to make Christianity, notably Catholicism, the official religion of the Roman Empire through the Edict of Thessalonica, in 380.

After Constantine’s decision to adopt Christianity, Christian worship spread throughout the Empire. In the administrative sphere, laws appeared which included important religious provisions. The expansion of Christianity had a characteristic feature in the West: the organization and centralization of places of worship related to the veneration of the dead, saints and relics.

The adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire placed bishops at the centre of power, and enabled them to dominate this organized worship through veneration of the dead, saints, and relics. Christianity was the projection in the religious sphere of the political organization of the Empire. The saint “Patronus” (a kind of intermediary between the world of the living and God) had to collect accounts and taxes. It was also known as patronus, the person in charge of overseeing the organization of the cult, the bishop.

Emperor Constantine (306-337)
Emperor Constantine (306-337). Photography: Bibliothèque Nationale de France

The veneration of the deceased was not something new: the novelty at that time was the worship of the saints organized by the ecclesiastical hierarchy. The worship of the saints was encouraged and organized by the hierarchy of the Church.

Conversions to Christianity were not massive. They affected above all the families closest to the State: the conversion of the “elites.” The expansion of Christian worship was a very long process. Catholic doctrine was not fully formed.

The beginning of the end of the Western Roman Empire and the arrival of Barbaric nations

Who were the Barbarians? There is nothing substantial that can treat the great diversity of human groups inside and outside the Empire as one and the same thing, despite the attempts of the Roman chroniclers to treat them as a single whole. Barbarians were human groups with different languages, different cults… They can only be encompassed under the same name to the extent of being a Roman chronicler.

These peoples had as a common denominator that they were not Romans. Not much is known about these peoples. What we know for sure is that they were nomadic tribes. And they possessed military power. However, we don’t know why they moved. Neither is it explained why these groups, while moving, created specific political forms of power that ended in dynasties (as the Visigoths). Nor does it explain why they were divided into different groups.

Invasions of the barbarian peoples
Map of invasions into the Roman Empire: blue arrows represent vandal invasions. Source: Wikipedia.org

In 410 AD Rome was sacked, an event that shook the Empire. Chroniclers described it as an apocalyptic event. It caused Emperor Honorius to flee. The entry of Barbarians into Rome had important consequences on the constitution of Orthodox Christian doctrine. Alaric I was responsible for the sack of Rome.

The Visigoth king Alaric asked the emperor to name him “magister milirus,” the head of the army. He wanted to be part of the Empire. He wanted to establish family connections, and so he kidnapped Galla Placidia (who belonged to the Imperial Family). The emperor’s refusal led to the looting.

Alaric’s troops, after the sack of Rome in 410, went to the province of Gallia Aquitania. There, in 418, a pact was signed between Roman representatives and the Goths who had settled in the area. This pact, whose legal form is known as hospitalitas, allowed the Goths to be incorporated into the Empire with a status called foederati,” as they received what was called “foedus.”

What was the pact of the Empire with the invaders?

The Roman State confirmed, through the pact, the settlement of the Goths in Aquitaine. The pact allowed the Goths to receive land in exchange for providing forces to the Imperial army. In virtue of this agreement, the Goths became managers of the Empire in that territory. In return, the Goths had to organize the taxes and troops that formed part of the Roman army.

The Goths foederati took part, alongside the Roman army, in a battle in the Ebro Valley against free deserters known as “bagaudae.” They were heterogeneous groups formed by fugitives, persecuted people, etc. who organized themselves militarily and could become a threat to the Empire.

The Goths also took part in the last consistent military presence of the Empire in the Iberian Peninsula, in the Province of Baetica, in the year 421. This was when the Empire confronted other barbarians, the Vandals. In this battle the Romans lost, defeated by the troops of King Gaiseric. After defeating the Romans in Baetica, the Vandals arrived in the Balearic Islands, in 425. Their journey continued and in 429 they had already reached the Strait of Gibraltar with the idea of crossing to North Africa, arriving in 435 to the city of Carthage, where they founded a new dynasty.

Gaiseric was the true founder of the Vandal Kingdom, which extended across North Africa and the Mediterranean between 429 and 534 AD.

Kingdom of the Vandals
Maximum extension of the Vandal kingdom (526 AD). Original source: Wikipedia.org

The Vandals had entered the Iberian Peninsula in 409 crossing the Pyrenees, together with the Suebi and Alans, in the context of a usurpation of power (struggle for the Imperial dignity). In 407, someone of no importance was proclaimed Emperor in Britain by the army. This man of honest condition, known as Constantine III, removed the Emperor’s legitimate authority in Gallia, where he was probably the Governor. In 409, he sent his son Constans to Hispania along with General Gerontius, to control the border crossing into the Pyrenees and to throw out a dynasty that had usurped power.

The Suebi, Vandals and Alans entered the Iberian Peninsula as Constant’s allies, but against his will they proclaimed in 408 AD another Emperor, Maximus, which lasted two years. It all ended in ruin. After these usurpations of power, the Empire would never be the same again. In 421, when the Vandals defeated the Imperial armies, the Empire disappeared. Only one organization remained standing, the Church.

The Christian Empire

In 321 Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and political and religious power became bound together. Eusebius (bishop and secretary of Constantine) inaugurated a new literary genre, the chronicle. Eusebius wrote the life of Constantine. These chronicles focused on describing the life of the Imperial dynasties.

The chronicles praised the life of the dynasties and introduced a new way of counting time. Constantine, one year after being proclaimed Emperor in the East, in 325 AD, convened the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea. Until the middle of the 5th century, councils were convened in cities of the Eastern Empire such as Constantinople, Ephesus or Chalcedon.

First Council of Nicea
First Council of Nicaea

These councils were intended to link the whole of Christianity: the Church of the East and the Church of the West. Christianity was much more present in the Eastern Roman Empire. The convocation of the councils, starting from Constantine, corresponded to the emperor, who presided over them and signed the conciliar acts.

The exercise of politics and the administration of the Church went together. These councils were lively meetings. They discussed fundamentally doctrinaire questions: fixation of dogmas, persecution of heresy (in a context of severe tensions) and, among other topics, the debate on the divine composition of God (a matter that led to many discussions).

At first, the organization of Christian worship in the Eastern Empire followed the tradition of what Saint Anthony, a native of Egypt, had done in the second century. St. Anthony inaugurated the tradition of the cult of retirement from the world and the exercise of abstinence from the most human activities. He lived a life of renunciation: chastity and fasting.

The teaching of St. Anthony was summed up in a monastic life (one person). And this was the tradition that came to the West. These practices could become very radical. They were immediately viewed with suspicion by the ecclesiastical hierarchy. In the fourth century some writings appeared trying to counteract the access of the religious.

The monks in this period moved continuously. They did not work. As continuers of the work of God, they claimed their sustenance in those places where they moved. Official writings appeared with the aim of standardizing monastic practices. These writings also ensured that the monks had to work.

Little by little, it was established who had the legitimacy to organize the worship, which was none other than the ecclesiastical hierarchy. By the time the ecclesiastical hierarchy established that it was the only one that could organize the worship, anyone who appeared to question the hierarchy was accused of being a heretic.

One of the other complicated issues was the establishment of the liturgical calendar. The most important Christian feast was the death and resurrection of Jesus. Yet the setting of dates for its celebration was the subject of much debate.

The expansion of Christianity was a very complicated process. In the cities it was easier because it was the official religion of the Empire. Christianity created networks of cohesion and help for the poor in the cities. All this tradition reached the Western Mediterranean through North Africa.

In the 4th century, the first struggles between the Church and heretics took place. It was in this century that, in the West, there was a split within the Church between the official Roman Church and the African Church. Many times the African Church is confused with the practice of Donatism, created by Donato, a person to whom an important heretical role is attributed.

The creation of heretics

The Church needed to have heretics. They are described as physically monsters. They were said to have monstrous behaviour about sexual practices. An association was made between physical monstrosity and what had been ideologically formulated.

There were also the circumcellions,” that were groups among which there were monks and that apart from claiming an ascetic practice of Christianity, they manifested very radical attitudes towards the Empire (they burned houses).

Augustine of Hippo is the key figure of the 4th century. After the looting of Rome in 410, in 430 Saint Augustine produced an important work inspired by this sack under the title “The City of God.” St. Augustine wanted to rebuild an eternal, indestructible city, a heavenly Jerusalem.

The City of God of St. Augustine could not be a human city. He wanted a city where everyone was called by the Lord but not everyone could have access. The doors would be open only to those baptized. St. Augustine was an orthodox of the Church. He created “useful terror,” violence.

Pope Marcellinus convened a council to unify the two churches. That became a trial against Donatist heresy. This heresy was eliminated.

In the 6th century, we encounter two figures related to an actually important monastery in Lérins. All the Frankish bishops passed through that abbey. In the 6th century there was discussion on what to do to spread Christianity. The two most significant bishops in this debate were: Caesarius, bishop of Arles, and Gregory, bishop of Tours. Both were sons of ruling families in Merovingian France.

The two bishops were educated in the Lérins Abbey. The monasteries became an additional milestone in the ecclesiastical career. They reflected on how the expansion of Christianity should be organized.

Caesarius wrote “The conquest of the world.” He wanted to find a way to spread Christianity outside the cities. He proposed the conquest.

For his part, Gregory proposed to sanctify the sacred places present in the mundus (the fields). These sacred places were those that could not be cultivated, since they were forbidden spaces. Farmers managed the reproduction of plants and livestock. A relic had to be installed to sanctify this space.

Setting the pattern for human reproduction

The language of the chronicles was Latin. At this time the bishops were involved in political machinations, in tax collection routines (in some cases), in setting patterns of human reproduction, and in setting strict patterns of sexual behaviour. There is now a great deal of written documentation from this period related to the organizing effort of these bishops to elaborate the norms that marked the family.

The penitential canons were a compilation of penitences corresponding to the types of sins, they were studied and an ideal calendar was established with the penitences.

Days: all religious holidays, Sundays, Fridays, Easter, menstruation, pregnancy, days after childbirth. Strict compliance with these traditions did not alter the rate of human reproduction. It was a matter of achieving maximum fertility with minimum pleasure, the only meaning of sexual relations. A newborn was an impure creature, so it had to be baptized. Also, the interior of a woman during pregnancy was an impure place. It generated a plethora of condemnations and penances.

All this had to do with one main aspect: the family composition of these societies. During all these centuries and a good part of modern history, with very different chronologies, the nuclear or conjugal family (father, mother and children) was consolidated.

This type of family had a lot to do with the conquest processes of the 10th and 11th centuries onward. In the same measure that a human group was fragmented, its patrimony was fragmented, therefore the Church was interested in having these nuclear families and therefore a single inheritance. The Church was a great accumulator of patrimony, this began to consolidate in the High Middle Ages.

6th century, the disappearance of the Empire in the West

Four bishops met with a comes (high imperial office) and elaborated some instructions that they had to give to the collectors where it was said:

“He must demand of the people that for each legal measure, they give him 9 siliquae (name of Roman currency that the Visigoths did not use), for each measure add 1 more siliqua, for the inevitable prejudices or bad production add 4 more siliquae or the 4 siliquae can be a rate applied to the same one.”

Jovià Silicone (363-364)
Siliqua of Jovian (363-364)

The collectors counted the grain with siliquae. It was a way of accounting for the measures.

This operation was carried out regularly, but this procedure had a problem: it did not allow distance and time to be overcome. These arrangements were never carried out smoothly and swiftly.

These routines were at the basis of political power and were quite similar to the classical Roman period. It was very difficult to make this procedure work. When this procedure was impossible to maintain, the Empire disappeared.

When Rome disappeared, political power had to be rebuilt.

The complete collection of this online course: Medieval History in Europe

The crisis of the 3rd century and the collapse of the Roman EmpireThe conversion of Constantine, the Christian EmpireAfter the Roman Empire: the Barbarian KingdomsCharlemagne, Emperor. The Kingdom of the Franks (481-987)

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