How significant was The Roman Empire in Shaping Christianity both during the Pre and Post Nicean Age? The Roman Empire obviously had a large effect on Christianity, up until the rule of Galerius from 98 AD to 117AD Christianity had been sporadically persecuted but with the relaxation of laws, there resulted in a steady conversion of the populace of Roman Empire even though roughly 10 percent by the year 300 AD were Christian1. This is why there was such surprise in the year 312 AD when the emperor Constantine told his forces to paint the Chi-Rho symbol on their shields before the battle of Milvian Bridge.It was not however until 380 that Christianity was made the official state religion during the reign of Theodosius but what pre Roman Christian values must also be investigated and the differences then have to be compared between that and the Church which remained after the fall of the Roman Empire. The effects which the Roman Empire had on Christianity can be seen in many ways firstly and maybe the most important was the theological change which were enacted by Constantine during the Council of Nicaea but also the theological change which occurred during the persecutions of Christians in the Roman Empire during the first few centuries A. D.
This change in theology also impacted on many other aspects of Christianity that include the structure and hierarchy of clergy and also the conversion of the Roman Empire which was originally pagan allowed a partly unconscious but also in some cases conscious use of pagan imagery and religious rites which allowed even certain Pagan festivals to become reused by certain Roman Emperors who wanted a smooth changeover.When Christianity was in a period that is known as its Anti Nicene3 period, the theological belief of early Christians could be described as extremely diverse4 and there was a lot of variety from one part of the empire to the other. Yet collectively the term Christian was very loose, if they believed in one singular God and the fact that Jesus Christ was sent by God to the Earth5they were considered Christians.The Church was also quite loosely organised that is compared to how it became during the 10th and 11th centuries. Certain communities in order to escape persecution had formed small areas with a loose hierarchy had developed yet there were no clear defined rules about what the roles of certain religious officials did.There was certainly no authority which was recognised overall across the faith and the only example of an ecumenical council like those seen from Nicaea (325) to the 2nd Council of Nicaea (787), was the Council of Jerusalem (20 AD)6.
In terms of the religious practice of the Pre Nicene period, they were extremely diverse but during the first century especially in Africa, Bishops started to emerge as leaders of metropolitan communities of Christians. There were also deacons who performed roles in services however this was yet undefined.These developments however happened at a different pace in different areas and the terms ‘Bishop’ and ‘Deacon’ were sometime used freely and very loosely. For example in the Didache an early Christian tract, speak of ‘appointing for yourself Bishops and Deacons'7 By the end of the 2nd century there were hundreds of bishops and presbyters had started to also gain responsibilities as Christianity spread away from the city centres into the rural heartlands of Africa and Asia Minor.
Overall during this pre-Nicene period there was a vast difference in belief many of which would be considered heresy at a later date for example the widely held Gnostic belief or the Ebonites in some Christian communities, Proto Orthodoxy, Orthodoxy were also present and they were all competing with each other and the various other splinter groups which had formed. This period can best be summed up by the historian Eamon Duffy who describes the period as in a ‘state of violent creative ferment’.This description obviously seems to create the idea of an extremely raw and violent period of Christianity with many differing beliefs, this early period of Christianity was also important due to the sporadic periods of persecution most famously of those by Nero in the first century after the Great Fire of Rome which the Christians were blamed for, another relevant period of persecution was that of Diocletian in 303 and this was known as the Great Persecution.Firstly the persecution of Christians which most early Christians traced back to the execution of Jesus Christ further increased cemented this idea of martyrdom9 for the Christian religion and this can be seen in both the teachings of Jesus in the new Testament 10and also the descriptions of the deaths of Martyrs encouraged this idea of suffering for your belief like Jesus did and this coupled with the common belief that was shared by men like St Paul that Jesus would return soon ( Parousia) further entrenched this ideal.This theological point was not so much a change however as was an exaggeration of Christian ideals to suit the situation which seems to be a common theme in the Christian religion as shown later on when the Roman Empire Converts its expansionist policy and uses scripture from the Old Testament to back up their ward theologically, most notably Cicero does this, Structurally in terms of the church, these persecutions pushed lots of Christians underground especially in major Cosmopolitan areas such as Rome which gave rise to the Early Christians’ famous use of the catacombs under the city.
This need to hide and defend themselves from enemies caused a change and gave rise to the First ‘Christian Apologists’ who had to analyse their scripture in order to defend them from both internal and external criticism. The different reaction to the persecution of Christians most notably during that of Diocletian and his successors (303-313) created a sort of schism between those Christians who had complied (traditiores) and those who resisted. This friction between the two groups can be seen later on in this essay with the conflict of Donatist Bishops which Constantine had to sort out.These persecutions during Diocletian’s reign produced one of the first major schisms in the history of the Church and a fracturing of relations between the Catholic Church and other Christian communities. These persecutions however have been argued to also have had an advantageous effect on the spread of Christianity12, as there was an increased sympathy from the pagan communities in cities as Constantine described of executioners “wearied out, and disgusted at the cruelties".Another main problem with the persecutions was that they were not systematic enough and many areas in the empire namely Britain and Gaul had only one edict which attempted to persecute Christians.
This coupled with the loss of the state’s most significant support group; the common people who were the ones who normally carried out the violent but also most effective persecutions against Christians failed to halt the spread of Christianity.According to the historian E. R Dodds the persecutions actually had an opposite effect to what was indented as it increased awareness of the Christian religion which caused a number of pagans to convert to Christianity due to the fact that they were ‘in love with death’14 and the idea of eternal life was extremely appealing to pagans. These persecutions were officially stopped by Constantine and Licinius in 313 with the Edict of Milan which effectively legitimised the Christian religion and provided freedom of Worship for not just Christianity but also all religions in the Empire.This was the first of many changes which Constantine was able to affect onto Christianity. As H.
A Drake says about Constantine ‘When he died in 337, Christian leaders had assumed the rank, dress and, increasingly, the duties of the old civic elite. ’ Structurally Constantine’s influence can first be seen during one of the first major schisms in the church and that is the Donatist conflict which was beginning during the time that Constantine was fighting for the Imperial throne.This struggle was about the traditores (literally traitors) and those North African Christians who felt that these people who had complied with the persecutors of Christians had become ‘tainted’ and there was a large conflict about whether the sacraments which they had performed could remain valid. The position of the Bishops of Carthage was that they should remain valid but a group of strong rigorists led by Donatus of Casae.When the Carthaginian Bishops rejected these Dentists they appealed to Constantine n 313, when the trial which was held at Rome was rigged by an Italian Bishop called Miltiades which ruled against the Donatists, Constantine was forced to move from a passive role and move into a more active one and he called a council in Arles (314). This was a very bold move and it was a major departure from the policy of old emperors in terms of religious matters, this can be seen with Constantine’s appointment of Miltiades which was a form of delegating responsibility.
This decision to call a council set a precedent and defined the relationship which Christianity was to have with the Empire; this was a much more active one with a personal interest for Constantine15. The council of Arles also ruled against the Donatists, this ruling further showed Constantine’s idea for the church which was to move away from the rigorist viewpoint of certain Christians like those of the Donatists.The ruling also showed Constantine’s agenda for the Christian religion in terms of its relationship with the state and that is the fact that he wanted to control the empire and if Christianity threatened to burst over into violence, he would be able to step in and intervene be it in a less forceful approach as done by previous emperors such as Diocletian. One of Constantine’s defining moments was the Edict of Milan in 313 which effectively ended the Diocletian persecution of Christians in the empire but also allowed all religions.
By the time the controversy had ended Constantine had effectively developed the Christian doctrine of ‘turn the other cheek’16. This desire of a less rigorist Church concerned less with how pure the sacrament performed was lasted until the 11th century Gregorian Reforms which were based on a very similar aspect to the schism which had occurred in North Africa as it was to do with the purity of the sacrament performed by certain priests who had paid for their office.The Edict of Milan also set up an important precedent in terms of the relationship between the leader of the state or ruing body and Christianity as in is Edict of Milan which were sent as a form of epistles Constantine says ‘in order that whatever divinity there is in the seat of heaven may be appeased and made propitious towards us and towards all who have been set under our power’.This provides the idea of divine backing for the emperor and his government and this idea was extremely common in medieval kingship rituals as shown by the anointing of Holy Oil during the coronation. One of the most significant theological events which occurred in Catholic history was the Council of Nicaea in 325, this was triggered by another controversy but this time it was in the detail of belief.
The conflict was about the teachings of the Alexandrian priest Arius who stipulated that fathers came before sons and so the son in the trinity must be inferior to the father.Constantine first tried to solve the situation amicably by describing the matter as ‘trivial’ and that : on the subject of divine providence therefore let there be one faith among you, one understanding, one agreement about the Supreme; the precise details about these minimal disputes among yourselves’. This shows Constantine’s desire to form one single monolithic church which had unity. Some people could view this cynically and say it was merely a way to consolidate power however had shown this desire in areas which he did not rightly control for example the Donatist schism.By 324 Constantine was planning a council similar to that at Arles but by this time he controlled both half of the Roman Empire so he was in a much better position to induce change. The Council with Constantine guiding them created a creed which equated the Father and the Son as they were made from the same substance.
This term though never found in scripture created a large amount of controversy, yet the Nicene Creed was one of the bedrocks of Orthodoxy and still is today in the Catholic Church.The Council ruled against Arius, the council did not fully resolve the controversy and then Constantine turned back upon his decision later on. Yet the most important aspect of the Council of Nicaea was that it was the first ecumenical council in the history of Christianity which aimed to produce a theology which could be used throughout the whole of the Christian religion. It was also the first time that Bishops were able to meet from all over the Christian world as was not the case with the Council of Jerusalem which only really took geographically closer Bishops.
The council was also important as it was the first major role that the Emperor had in respect to the Christian religion19, this ability to be involved in certain aspects of the Church even with such important things as theological belief set a precedent in the history of Christianity and many rulers would try and dig up the image of the Roman Emperor after the Western Roman Empire in order to gain some influence over the Roman Catholic Church most notably that of Charlemagne and also of the resulting Holy Roman Empire which came about in modern day Germany.Finally the council finalised one of the most important theological beliefs in Christianity which was the Trinity. As Robin Lane Fox points out in his book Christ is described as ‘begotten but not made’, yet he is also described as ‘being made of the same substance’, this allowed Jesus to be both divine but also human allowing one of the most defining parts of Christianity which was the humbling nature of Jesus Christ.The whole Nicene Creed is described by Robin Lane Fox as being distinctly anti-Arian20 even though it did not solve the Arian controversy the Council is one of the defining points in Christianity and most likely would not have been successful if it had not been for Constantine’s logistical powers due to the fact that he was Emperor of both halves of the Roman Empire.Yet during Constantine’s reign there was no official joining of the state and the Christian religion and this was only formally realized with the Edict of Thessalonica by the emperors Theodosius I, Gratian, and Valentinian II on 27 February 380. This made Nicene Christianity the official state religion of the Empire, the importance of this Edict was that by making Christianity the religion of the only superpower it provided a massive boost to Christianisation of areas and allowed quick travel for Bishops and preachers who wanted to spread their teachings.