Introduction to early church history of Catholic Church 9

Introduction to early church history 9
 Jean Paul

The Latin fathers discussed in the last lecture were based in North Africa.  At this time in Rome the normal language would be Greek.  The liturgy was celebrated in Greek, and the complete change over to Latin was not until the time of Pope Damasus in 375AD.  The language of administration started to change earlier, we can see an effect of this in the Catacombs of Callistos where the early inscriptions are in Greek but inscriptions from the time after the two great persecutions we’ve already discussed are in Latin.

There was an increasing struggle between the Church and the State which had led to two Empire wide persecutions.  Why was this happening now?

1)  Paganism was in decline amongst the people, after 235AD there are very few inscriptions to the traditional gods.  The mystery religions also declined as they were too expensive to maintain, the exception to this was the cult of Mithras which was celebrated by soldiers.  Other popular cults were in decline, there is no evidence that Saturn was worshipped after 240AD, and there are various other examples.

So paganism was in decline for various reasons.  The persecutions were an attempt to revive the pagan religions - as according to the old maxim the welfare of the state depends on the right worship of the gods.

As well as the Christian influence there was another reason for the decline of paganism which was the rise of philosophy and in particular neo-Platonism which was extremely critical of the pagan myths.

We’ve already seen Ammonius Saccus who greatly influenced Origen who studied under him.  A major disciple was Plotinus, born in 204AD.  Between 232 and 234AD he was in Alexandria studying and teaching.  Ultimately he goes to Rome in 260 and dies there in 270AD.

He was very influential with Christian writers as this form of neo-Platonism was used by the great figures like Augustine.

Another figure was Porphyry (242-305AD) he was another neo-Platonist.  He was in Rome from 263AD, in 274AD he wrote 15 books that attack Christianity, this is an indication of how strong Christianity had become.  He also edits the Enneads of Plotinus and writes a biography of him.

For both negative and positive reasons philosophy had an influence on Christianity.  The controversies in the 4th century to do with Christology and Trinitarian teaching were rooted in the philosophical tools that were being used to express the ideas.

2)  The Government was unstable - during the previous half century a whole succession of Emperors had reigned most had been murdered, those that hadn’t generally died in battle.  This led to instability.  We’ve already seen that the persecution of Decius ended after he was killed in battle, the other persecution by Valerian really petered out.

At the end of this century there would be the greatest persecution under the Emperor Diocletian.  He was a Roman general who was highly experienced.  Although he was Roman in the sense of being a Roman citizen he was originally from the provinces, he was born in what is now Croatia.  He worked his way up through the ranks in the army until he reached the stage of being a highly influential general.

In 284AD he became Emperor following a long period of instability, both in terms of the government and economically.  There were increasing Barbarian attacks and invasions from various parts of the Empire - the Persians, Goths, Germanic tribes along the Rhine, from England.  The Empire was being invaded from all sides at the same time.

Faced with this military problem Diocletian divides the empire into two in 285AD.  Diocletian would rule the East and he appointed Maximian in the West, they were given the title Augustus. Diocletian establishes a capital at Nicomedia and Maximian established his capital at Milan.  These capitals were established so that it would be easier to get an army to the invading barbarians if there were any further incursions but this meant that Rome was no longer the capital of the empire.

Diocletian decides and announces that both he and Maximian would rule for 20 years after which they would step down, through this he attempting to establish a line of succession for the Emperors.

In 293AD the Empire was further subdivided as each Augustus was given an assistant - Galerius in the East and Constantius in the West.  These assistants were given the title Caesar.  This set up of two Augusti and Caesari was known as the Tetrarchy.  This set up would lead to arguments about how many Emperors and co-Emperors the Empire had.  Although Constantius had a base at Trier he had a secondary base in London.

As things begin to settle down economically (punitive laws threatening imprisonment had controlled inflation) and military a persecution began through a gradual process.

On 12th March 295AD all soldiers were ordered to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods.  This would demonstrate loyalty to both the empire and the Emperor and the army was then to be a model for reinvigorating paganism generally.  Those that refused were imprisoned and if you were recalcitrant all the way you were ultimately martyred. 

In 296AD the order went out in some areas to hunt out and burn all of the sacred books of the Christians.  The logic being that if there were no books Christians wouldn’t be able to spread their religion - for the Romans Christians, like the Jews, were people of the book.

297/8AD the persecution continued in the army.  There are orders to investigate every soldier to remove any remaining Christians.

301AD (according to the Chronicles of Jerome - not all source agree) the persecution starts to move into the general population.

303AD this continued.
Lactantius writes that the persecution starts in 302/3 it was caused by the mother of Galerius, who was a devotee of one of the mystical religions worshipping the mother of the mountains.  She was devout in her belief and sacrificed daily to her goddess and she would feed the meat of the sacrifice to her servants.  She realised that some of her servants wouldn’t eat the meat and she realised that they were Christian and formed a hatred of them.  She encouraged her son to persecute the Christians generally.  So Diocletian and Galerius took counsel together and Lactantius says that Galerius ultimately talked Diocletian into it.  Diocletian tried to moderate the persecution - he hoped that it would be completed without bloodshed whereas Galerius wanted to burn the Christians alive - this reaches back to the actions of Nero.

The persecution started on the feast of Terminus (23rd February) - as they wished to terminate the Christians.  It started with the Church at Nicomedia which was first ransacked and then razed to the ground by the Praetorian guards.

The following day Christians were stripped of all of their honours, were allowed to be tortured and had various legal penalties applied to them.  They also lost their right to be free citizens.

After these events there was another attempt to seize and destroy all Christian books.

The 4th edict issued in 304AD was the most severe.  It started with arresting the bishops but was applied to all who would not offer sacrifice to the gods.

There is then a period of respite.

But the persecution is revived, but in the meantime the authorities had changed as in 305AD Diocletian, as he had promised, resigned and also forces Maximian to do the same.  The two Caesars now become Augustus: Galerius in the East and Constantius in the West.

Constantius then appointed Maximinus as Caesar, while Galerius appoints Severus.  All of these men were generals in the army.

Things settle down for a while after the retirements.  The main persecution had been in the East - Constantinus does not seems to have enforced the edicts.

In 306AD Constantius dies and Maximinus takes over .  Maximinus names Maxentius as Caesar (he was the son of Maximian).  There is a split in the West as the army names Constantius’ son Constantine as Augustus and Caesar.  The stage is set for civil war.

In 307AD Severus (from the East) dies and is replaced by Licinius.

In 308AD Maximinus (in the West) tries to re-establish paganism and launches a persecution, Eusibius describes it as being carried out more energetically than any before.

Constantine was now moving South, he settled events in London and Trier.

To add to the confusion Maximian now decides that he wants to come back to political power, and appoints himself as Augustus again.  Diocletian plays no further part after his retirement and dies in around 313AD.

We now have 3 Augusti and one Caesar in the West.

Constantine moves South again he destroys the armies of Maximinus, who commits suicide.  In the West this now leaves Maximian and his son Maxentius.  Maximian dies in 310AD, leaving just Maxentius and Constantine.

Meanwhile in the East Galerius had become deathly ill.  On the 30th April he issues an edict of toleration, so there were legal moves to tolerate Christians even before the edict of Constantine.  In the edict Galerius says that he had tried to convert the Christians but that large numbers had refused to be converted even though they were unable to worship God (they had no books and no Churches).  Galerius granted pardon and indulgence to allow Christians to establish Churches provided that public order was maintained.

The edict was issued in the name of the three Emperors Galerius, Licinius  (in the East) and Maxentius (in the West).  The Emperors were refusing to recognise Constantine.

Constantine continues to move South and at the battle of the Bridge of Milvian Bridge he defeats Maxentius - leaving him sole Emperor in the West, this was in 312AD.

His father had not enforced the edicts of persecution and Constantine now sides with the Christians.  There are various accounts of a vision or a dream.  In a pagan account it was before the battle with Maximinus where he had a vision of the Sol Invictus telling him he would win, this figure is sometimes linked through the work of the poet Virgil to a Messiah like figure and can be confused with Christ.
In Christian stories it is set as a vision before the battle with Maxentius after which he marked his soldiers shields with the sign of the Cross or with the Chi-Ro symbol (like an X with the top right corner bent down) - this symbol is known as the labarum and is based on the first two letters of Christs name in Greek.

It would seem that he went into battle invoking the help and protection of Christ.

This vision is also recorded by Eusebius in his Life of Constantine.  He claims that the Emperor had described the vision for him.  According to Eusebius Constantine had sought divine help declaring that this would be better than soldiers.  He was monotheistic - as his father had been who had been a worshipper of Sol Invictus.  Whilst praying Constantine saw a vision which was of a cross of light above the sun with the words By this sign you will conquer (in hoc signo vinces).  This sign was seen not only by Constantine but also by the soldiers of his army.  Later whilst he was sleeping Christ appeared to Constantine to demand that he put the symbol of the cross on his soldiers shields as a sign to safeguard them against their enemies.  Constantine was convinced that the God of the Christians was on his side, over and against the pagan gods and that it was under the sign of this God he won the battle.

But was Constantine being a political opportunist or did he really believe?  Was he just turning his fathers monotheism to his advantage, and linking Sol Invictus with Christ?

Constantine was only baptised on his death-bed 2 weeks before he died, but there are some indications that he considered himself to be a Christian as were a number of his family members, including his mother Helena.

During the period from 315 to 337AD pagan symbols were gradually removed from coinage and replaced with Christian symbols.

When things begin to settle down Constantine gives the palace of his wife Fausta to Sylvester who was Bishop of Rome - this still had the name of the family on it who had died during Nero’s persecution - Laterna.  The round around the palace was cleared to allow the building of a Church at Constantine’s expense.  He had a small chapel built on Via Ostiense were there was a monument as the burial place of St Paul (a small chapel is all that was possible as at the time there were two major roads there).  He also levelled a pagan cemetery (unheard of in Roman tradition) to allow the building of a Church over the burial place of St Peter.

Even the putting off of baptism was not unusual in patristic families - as in the Church at that time you only had one further chance at repentance and this would involve a lengthy period of penance - someone like Constantine who would have to order the execution of people would not be able to do this.

So overall was he a convinced Christian - who knows?

In 313AD he issues the edict of Milan (this was the capital of the West not Rome) which gives religious freedom to Christians.

There is now one ruler in the East and one in the West.  No Caesars had been appointed.

Constantine meets Licinius (Galerius had died in 311AD).  A letter is issued to the governors concerning worship in it all forms of worship are to be tolerated, so that whatever divinity dwells in Heaven would bless the Empire (note the neutral use of divinity).  The letter abolishes all previous edicts against Christians and restores their property to them (if any resist this then there would be positive intervention on behalf of the Christians).  For the first time in Roman law Christians were recognised as a legal body - which could therefore buy, sell and inherit.

On the Arch of Constantine, erected by the Senate and the people, it says that Constantine won his victory through the intervention of the Divinity.

However things don’t end here - as ambition raises its ugly head.

In 314AD Licinius begins a war against Constantine which is inconclusive in its outcome.

317AD Constantine names his sons Constantine and Crispus as Caesars in the West, Licinius names his son also Licinius Caesar in the East.

321Ad Licinius persecutes the Christians in the East

324AD War between Licinius and Constantine.

23rd July 324AD Constantine wins Licinius and his son are taken prisoner and executed.

Constantine is now sole Augustus in East and West, his sons are Caesars.

Constantine now moves East - he builds a new capital away from Nicodemia which was on the Asian side of the isthmus instead he builds on the European side on the site of a small village, Byzantium which is razed to do this.  The new city bears his name it is Constantinople, built very quickly between 324 and 330AD.

So now Rome has lost even the symbol of being capital and becomes even less important politically.

This move East has repercussions as in 326AD Crispus and his mother Fausta revolt - this is defeated by Constantine and the two of them are executed.

From this point Constantine lives on in relative peace in Constantinople until he dies on 22nd May 337AD.

He is succeeded by his 3 remaining sons - who rule as co-Emperors.

In the East (including Egypt) Constantius ruled from Constantinople.

In the North West (Gaul , Spain and Britain) Constantine II ruled from Trier.

In the South West (the Mediterranen West of Italy and Africa) Constans rules from Milan.

Immediately there is civil war as Constans and Constantine attack each other.  In 340AD Constantine II loses to Constans so there is again only one ruler in the West.

Constans and Constantius then battle it out until Constans is killed in battle in 350AD.  Constantius remains as sole rule until he dies in 361AD.

But none have left a male heir - and so the succession goes to a nephew of Constantine called Julian, who is killed in battle in 363AD.  He is known to history as Julian the Apostate - although he had never been a Christian he was always pagan.  In 361AD he tries to re-establish paganism in the form of a monotheistic religion based round Hercules, to do this he launches the last real persecution of Christians.  He even tried to rewrite Virgil‘s poetry to support his paganism.

At his death paganism and persecution are over.

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