edited December 4, 2012 and December 3, 2014]
ROME IN THE 4TH CENTURY
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
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.
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
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
followed--is to watch the Romans struggle with an issue that still
confronts us today, the proper relationship between church and state.
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
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.
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
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
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,
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
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.
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
"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!!!
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
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
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.
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
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?
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
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.
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
He recruited and organized a pagan clergy, a clergy in some ways
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.
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
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,
flung his blood into air saying, "Gallilean, thou hast conquered" or
"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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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...."
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