[Partly edited December 4, 2012 and December 3, 2014]



The fourth century A.D. is a kind of no-man's land in history.  Almost nobody seems to spend a lot of time discussing this era, partly because it doesn't really fit easily with our conventional specializations.  For the ancient historian, the reign of Constantine (337) marks the limit of his expertise.  The Christianized Roman empire that emerged from the ruins of pagan Rome doesn't really seem a part of the ancient world.   It's not surprising that so many histories of ancient Rome and so many course on Roman history end with the reign of Constantine. 

Medievalists too tend to be uncomfortable with the 4th century.  The Roman empire is still around, and most elements of classical civilization are still in place.  Even the Byzantine historians often aren't terribly comfortable dealing with the 4th century.  The Western empire is still around, and the East isn't distinctively "Byzantine" just yet.  As a result of all this, the 4th century gets neglected.  I've never heard anyone else lecture on this period in Roman history.

Nevertheless, the 4th century AD is a fascinating period in history.  It was a splendid age for philosophy and theology, producing writers like the Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry, historians like Ammianus Marcellinus, and Christian writers like Eusebius of Caesarea, Lactantius, Jerome, Chrysostom, and, the second greatest of all theologians, St. Augustine.

But to me, the most fascinating aspect of the 4th century--and the two centuries that followed--is to watch the Romans struggle with an issue that still confronts us today, the proper relationship between church and state.

The Roman emperors of the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries desparately wanted to get this one right.  Each believed proper church-state relationships the key to Roman unity, and they believed that unity was absolutely essential to Rome's future.  

Now they were probably right in this.  Unity was essential to the success and perhaps even the survival of Rome.  Ironically, however, the attempts of these emperors  to create unity ofen created as many problems as they solved.  The last final exam study question asks you for a response to this generalization:

The Roman emperors of the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries were probably right in seeing unity as essential to the success and perhaps even the survival of Rome.  Ironically, however, their attempts to create unity often created as many problems as they solved.

II.  Constantine

When Constantine died in 337 AD, he probably thought he had the unity problem pretty much solved, and he had gone a long way toward creating both political and religious unity.  Constantine had ended the civil war that had begun at his father's death in AD 306, and he had made Rome's borders secure.  Not only that, he had come up with what seemed to be an ideal religious solution.  Paganism was tolerated in public (though not private).  Christianity, now the state's most favored religion, would help glue the Roman people together, and  Christian unity would be assured simply by aranging for a council of bishops to come to a consensus on any issues that threatened to divide the church.  The Council of Nicaea (325) gave no hint of problems to come.  Of the 220 bishops at the council, 218 had agreed to condemn Arianism and to sign on to the Nicene creed. A unified church, and a unified state: this promised a bright future indeed.

But would stability last?  Could Constantine assure that his settlement would be honored? Who would take over when Constantine was gone?  Constantine had intended there to be a tetrarchy with his three sons and one of his nephews sharing power.  Surely this was ideal.  The empire was too vast for single person to manage effectiviely,  but there had to be at least a measure of unity.  What better way to arrange things than to let brothers and cousins control various parts of empire?  

It didn't work.  Constantine's soldiers wanted only the sons of Constantine to rule, so they murdered the nephew and a bunch of other relatives who might have had some claim to throne.  Constantine II controlled Spain, France, and Britain: but that wasn't enough for him.  He marched his armies in his younger brother Constans' Italian domain and, during that conflict, he was killed 340).  Constans now controlled a sizeable chunk of the empire, but his cruelty (and perhaps his homosexuality) led to a revolt of the troops under Magnentius.  Abadoned by his troops, Constans fled, but he was tracked down and assassinated (350).  Constantius then gathered his forces, attacked Magnentius, and took control of the whole empire.  Unity again under one man!  But could Constantius keep his empire together?  Well he certainly tried.

III.  Constantius (AD 337-361)

Constantius had many admirable qualities.  He was a decent general and a skilled soldier in his own right, adept at the javelin and at archery.  He was a frugal ruler and faithful to his wife.

But Constantius--like so many of his predecessors--was obsessed with protecting his own life.  Now, of course, there is a patriotic purpose behind this: if I'm gone, everyone is going to suffer.  But this magnification of his personal importance meant it was easy to justify his cruel and suspicious ways.  Ammianus Marcellenus tells us he was as cruel a man as Domitian and Commodus.

Like Constantine, Constantius inisted on religious unity, but he went much farther in his suppression of pagan practices.  In 341, he made illegal all heathen sacrifices.  In 346, he ordered the pagan temples closed.  In 356, he decreed the death penalty for making pagan sacrifice.

Now this probably would have worked out o.k.--increasing Constantius popularity with Christians without much political cost.  Not too many cared about pagan sacrifices anyway.  But Constantius made a mistake in the way he tried to ensure Christian unity, adopting what's called the semi-Arian doctrine on the nature of Christ.

The Council of Nicaea, unwisely in my view, had inserted in creed line that Christ was "of same essence as God."  The Greek term for this: "homoousias."  Many were uncomfortable with this word, and proposed saying instead that Christ was "homoiousias," of like essence.  What's difference?  One iota.  Not much.  But the issue was important enough for Contantius to make an issue of it.  He deprived "orthodox" Christians of their positions as bishops, and replaced them with semi-arians. 

Now notice what is at stake here.  Not just doctrine, but jobs--and good jobs at that.  And anybody who knows the religion business (or the academic business for that matter) knows what will happen next.  All of a sudden, trivial philosophical/theological issues loom might large.  And notice that all this was the result of an attempt to enforce a *compromise* theology!  Compromise is not always the way to peace!!!

Clearly, Constantius attempt at religious unity backfired and actually increased tension.  Even more of a problem for Constantius, the choice of a successor.  It would have been ideal, of course, to select a relative, somebody who could trade off the Constantine name.  But this wasn't going to work too well.  Constantius had no kids.  He had killed all his relatives except two--two sons of Constantine's half-brother: Gallus and Julian.  Constantius first designated Gallus as his heir.  But the always-suspicious Constantius worried that Gallus might be plotting against him and had him killed.  And that left Julian.

IV.  Julian (361-363)

Julian had an exceedingly rough time of it growing up.  His parents were slaughtered by soldiers when he was 5.  Julian himself was watched closely all his life, and sometimes even kept in a virtual prison.  He was allowed few friends and associates, and many times the friends he was permitted to have were Constantius' spies.  Even his wife was Constantius' sister and likely her brother's spy.

Nevertheless, Julian turned out to be a remarkable able young man.  He was first-rate scholar, the kind of kid who just devours books.  He knew thouroughly the OT and NT, all of the classical writers (Homer, Sophocles, Herodotus, Plato, Aristotle).  He was especially well-read in the Neo-Platonist philosophy fashionable among both Christians and non-Christians in the 4th century.

Julian was also a first-class leader.  He was put in charge of Gaul when Constantius took off for east.  This was supposed to be a kind of figurehead position, but Julian took charge, and turned out to be remarkably adept.  He thwarted invasion attempts by the Franks and Allemani, then decided to launch a punitive expedition across the Rhine.  Here, too, he continued to win.  Not only that, Julian turned out to be an excellent administrator.  But, you see, with a ruler like Constantius on the throne, this can get you into trouble.  Julian's very successes brought him unders suspicion.  Constantius ordered him to send troops to east.  Julian, knowing that to do so would allow barbarian invasion, simply refused.  Constantius then decides he'll use his army against Julian--but on the way, he dies.  And now in charge of Rome?

Julian.  The philosopher/administrator/general/writer.  Perhaps another Gaius Julius Caesar or Hadrian, only far, far better.  Julian one of the most moral men ever to rise to such a position, far more moral than Gaius Julius Caesar.  Julian's marriage was forced on him as a political expedient.  Yet there is no record that he was ever unfaithful to his wife, or that he engaged in any irregular unions either before or after marriage, and in every other area of life he was exemplary as well.

If you wanted somewone to finally complete the job of restoring the greatness of Rome, Julian was your man.  Except for one small default.  Julian had a secret.  A most surprising secret.  You see Julian, although he never told anyone this, was a pagan.   Now how could this be?  Julian was  raised in a Christian home.  He had nothing but Christian tutors.  He was in church all the time.  But Julian had no use for Christianity at all, and longed for the return of paganism.

Now when I call Julian a pagan, I need to make it clear that his paganism was not the ordinary superstitious kind.  His was the kind of paganism advocated by the neo-Platonist philsophers.  In the thinking of these men, the gods were not supermen, but the personifications of philosophical priniciples.  Aphrodite and Eros represented the principle of love, Saturn the principle of truth, etc.  It was the worship of these principles that Julian wanted to restore--and a restoration of the classical culture Julian believed the Christians had destroyed.

Julian was no fool.  He realized that he wasn't going to get rid of Christianity through persecution--and he had no taste for persecuation anyway.  Julian decided to employ a for  more effective tool in destroying the church: toleration--or, at least, a type of toleration.

Julian called back the various Christians whose beliefs had earlier been deemed heretical.   Julian made sure they could teach openly, hoping in that way to weaken the church.  Likewise, Julian favored the Jews, believing that this too would weaken the church's hold on the minds and hearts of Romans.  Julian weeded the Christians out of the educational system, forbidding them to teach the classics.

But Julian's big hope was a restored paganism.  He opened pagan temples again.  He recruited and organized a pagan clergy, a clergy in some ways modeled after Christian clergy.  Julian brought in elaborate and splendid pagan sacrifices and ceremonies.

 And the result of all this in terms of religious change?  Nothing.  No rallying of pagan sentiment, no temples filled with worshippers.  Pagans didn't really care.  Julian's ascetic, moral paganism had no appeal to the masses.  If you're going to have a moral religion, you might as well be a Christian.

But Julian hardly got a fair chance.  Only 2 years into his reign, Julian set out to deal with the Persian threat on the eastern borders.  Plato had taught a kind of reincarnatation idea, and Julian had somehow gotten the idea that he was Alexander the Great reincarnate.  And so--well, time to conquer Persia!  Julian got all the way to Ctesiphon, but was unable to bring Persian troops to battle.  During a minor skirmish, he was fatally wounded, perhaps by one of his own soldiers, a disgruntled Christian.  As he died, he flung his blood into air saying, "Gallilean, thou hast conquered" or (perhaps), "Be satisfied."  He was only 32.  A real tragedy, for no man as capable was to follow for a long time.  Had Julian only lived...well, who knows what would have happened?

Julian was one of the last men who had a chance of preserving theempire of Constantine and Diocletian intact.  After his death, no emperor had the combination of military ability, administrative expertise, popularity and luck necessary to hold empire together.  The years immediately following Julian's death were a return to that same old story: usurpations, mutinies, barbarian invasions.  But one other 4th century emperor also had some chance of bringing stability.

V.  Theodosius the Great (379-395)

Theodosus took over the eastern portion of the empire in AD 379, working closely with a western co-emperor, Valentinian II.  He faced all sorts of problems: population decline, deurbanization, and diminished wealth made the empmire much weaker than it had been.

Theodosius not only looked after his own dominions in the east, he as of much help to Valentianian, helping Valentinian regain the throne from a usurper.  And when Valentinian was assassassinated, Theodosius took his troops west, dealt with the new usurper, and restored order again.

Of  course, to do things like this required a stronger military, and Theodosius found a way to strengthen his forces while a the same time solving what had been a perennial problem for the eastern empire: the Gothic problem.  Theodosius negotiated with the Goths, settling them on Roman territory in return for their military services.  But note something important.  Earlier Roman leaders (like Constantine) had incorporated barbarians soldiers into Rome's armies, but these troops were assimilated.  Now, Theodosius lets the Goths keep their own commanders.  This will be *very* important later: a good example of a step toward unity that backfires.

Theodosius also attempted to secure unity by making Rome entirely Christian.  Pagan sacrifice was once again a capital offense.  There's no record that anyone ever executed though: no pagans were willing to be martyrs.  Small wonder.

Pagan temples were converted to churches and many destroyed.  The loss of great art and architeture that occured as temples were cleansed or destroyed is a real shame. Theodosius himself was not responsible: he tried to preserve art treasures.  But he didn't do a whole lot to stop the destruction of the temples, and many of his officials actually aided the vandals.  But one can understand why the destruction went as far as it did, and why no pagans stood up for what was being destroyed.  When the temples were opened up, all sorts of sordid secrets came out.  Hollow statues/speaking tubes which gave worshippers answers.  Fake "gods" that had affairs with or deceived female worshippers.  There were Jim Bakers and Jimmy Swaggerts all over the place.

When the Nile river floods provided ideal conditions even after the destruction of the Serapeum in Alexandria, it was clear to everyone that the pagan gods were nothing at all.  The relative peace, prosperity, and unity of the empire let Christians boast that the switch of religions had done Rome good, that their religion had done exactly what people always want their religion to do, it had made them prosperous in this world.

But peace, prosperity, and unity didn't last.  Theodosius at his death split the empire between his sons.  Arcadius takes over in east, Honorius in the west.  And then the fun begins--a series of invasions which eventually destroys the Western empire and brings the East to its knees.  In come Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Huns, Herulians and more.

And for the few remaining pagans, it was easy enough to see why these disasters had hit the Roman people.  The Romans had abandoned the gods, and now the gods were abandoning them.  The remedy?  "Give me that old time religion, give me that...."

For Christian theologians, it was a difficult task to explain why the Romans shouldn't have simply gone back to the "old time religion" of paganism.  A difficult task--but one they were more than able to see through.  St. Augustine particularly immensely successful both in explaining the disasters that had fallen on the Roman people and in explain the relationship between religion and political success.

Next perhaps that's more a topic for next time--and the final exciting final episode.