Part 3 of a series.
As the fourth century CE drew to a close, Christians lived in large numbers throughout the Roman Empire. (How large is still debateable, but they were known to be a majority in some places, such as Antioch and Alexandria.) By the reign of Emperor Theodosius I, they were in control, and would stay there.
Arguments and skirmishing between Christian sects had been going on for decades, by the time Theodosius reached the throne. But whereas Constantine had, at Nicaea, tried to ram the sects together; his sons had tried pacifying them sporadically; his nephew Julian had tried to roll the calendar back to pre-Constantine times; and Julian’s successors had just tried to muddle through the disarray, Theodosius adopted a new tactic: To participate, himself, in the infighting.
The Arian heresy was the most pressing ecclesiastical concern of the time, and is remembered best now, but other heresies existed. Pelagianism (which denied original sin), and Macedonianism (which denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit) were just two of dozens more. Again, Christian history as most people recall it now, does not reflect historical fact. Nicaea in no way unified early Christianity; if anything it fractured it definitively. The Arian heresy lived on, causing immense trouble in many provinces for decades yet to come, and many other heresies erupted as a follow-up to the christological conflict (the heretical teachings of Macedonius of Constantinople were only one). In fact, Arianism endured for another century or two, since the Goths and Vandals had been converted by Arian missionaries, and those peoples maintained that belief-set.
As noted, all attempts at quelling the sometimes-violent Christian infighting had failed; so upon his accession, Theodosius took sides, adopting the Trinitarian/Nicene view, and attempted to quash Arianism. At first he did this merely by disclosing his preference and implying that everyone else should do the same; he was respected enough that this actually worked in many places. Where it didn’t, he used more severe tactics, as would his successors. Along the way he forced the appointment of Nicene bishops in Antioch and elsewhere; he also summoned a council, this time at Constantinople in 381, to formally adopt the Nicene doctrine (this time with the addition of the Holy Spirit to the mix, which was not discussed at Nicaea in 325) at an ecclesiastical level.
The persistence of Arianism in the west, especially among the barbaric nations, shows that even this effort failed. Arianism died out only after several barbarian kingdoms adopted the conventional Trinity doctrine as taught, by then, in Rome.
Early in his reign, Theodosius did nothing to hinder polytheism. In fact, for a long time he actively participated in it, retaining for a time the office of pontifex maximus, thus acting essentially as the state religion’s (polytheist) high priest. Later in his reign, however, he had a change of heart. Many attributed this change to the influence of St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (and as such, the Imperial liaison to the Church). But this is not actually clear; for instance, Ambrose briefly excommunicated Theodosius after the Thessalonian massacre, which strained their relationship around the same time that he had this change of policy. Since his first policy changes took place in the east, by then majority-Christian, Theodosius may have been making overtures to the locals, catering to the masses, if you will. In any event, by a series of ordinances issued from 388 to 393, the Emperor successively discouraged polytheistic worship.
The nature of these ordinances is now the matter of some debate. Previously it had been thought that they outlawed all religions but Christianity, but the fact is that their targeted nature — as shown for example in the fact that they affected neither the aristocracy nor the legions — makes it clear that Theodosius did not, in fact, “outlaw” polytheism. These ordinances might better be compared with the policies of Julian against Christians, meant to inconvenience and hinder them.
While no Roman Emperor ever declared Christianity the “state religion” of Rome — a claim often erroneously made of Constantine — it is a fact that, by issuing these ordinances, Theodosius came closer to this, than any other Emperor. But truthfully, he did not even do that much. Polytheism was never actually outlawed in the Roman Empire; it simply dwindled away over time.
As the western Roman Empire fell, various barbarian-led states collectively took its place; Visigoths in Iberia (Spain), Vandals in Africa, Franks and Burgundians in Gaul (France), and Ostrogoths in Italy and Illyria (northwestern Balkans). The barbarian rulers inherited lands they were not, by tradition, prepared to govern; while they were semi-agrarian themselves, with no written literature and no body of education, they now controlled large regions with many cities, large-scale agriculture and industry, and complex legal and administrative systems. By and large it was Christians — mostly, literate clergy — who stepped in to assist them. The fields of education and law almost wholly fell into the hands of the Church, with the cooperation of the various kings. Even moreso than they had done under Roman control, this allowed the ecclesiastics to build an organization of their own with a certain degree of recognized civic authority of its own. Many of the bishops became minor princes in their own right.
This is one of the reasons why the Church became such a different machine, if you will, in the east as opposed to the west: the eastern bishops were still part of the Empire (the eastern or Byzantine empire) and thus remained elements of a much-larger political and administrative construct. Appointments of bishops was the purview of Emperors and prefects in the east, while many western bishops were self-appointed, put forward by their own subordinates, or ratified by neighboring bishops, with the monarchs playing little or no role in the process. By the Middle Ages, the western Church was able to maintain control of ecclesiastical appointments for itself and reject monarchical interference, as happened during the Investiture Controversy. The eastern bishops and Church never reached this level of autonomy until the Byzantine empire was already being overrun; but as these eastern bishops fell under Islamic control, they lost their role in the state, since a new majority religion held sway.
A lot of ink has been spilled on the matter of just why Christianity prevailed so thoroughly over polytheism. Even whole books do not do justice to the subject, so a few remarks here cannot hope to resolve the matter. I can, however, point out a few facts which may hold clues:
The most common belief, currently, is that Christianity’s basic veracity is responsible for its ascendance in the Roman Empire, but this is merely a post hoc value judgement having no objective basis. In those places where Islam superceded Christianity, such as in the Middle East, Muslims interpreted this, similarly, as being due to Islam’s basic veracity over that of Christianity. The fact is that the appearance of veracity is gained only in hindsight, and would apply to whichever belief system prevailed, whether Christianity or something else.
Go back to Part 2, Enter the Christians, or all the way to Part 1, Religion in the Greco-Roman World.
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