The First Seven Ecumenical Councils
, Their History and Theology


 Emperor Augustus as Jupiter



1. Introduction: THE ROMAN WORLD 


1.1. The Roman Empire 1.2. Imperial Organization 1.3. Paganism and Christianity
1.4. Church and State 1.5. Constantine the Great 1.6. Chronology 1.7. Select Bibliography




BY the time the first ecumenical council opened at Nicaea in 325, Rome as a city had flourished for a thousand years, and as an Empire, regarded as eternal and universal, had dominated 50-60 million inhabitants of the Mediterranean littoral and western Europe for over three hundred. Augustus Caesar (27 BC to AD 14), grand-nephew of Julius, had ended the civil wars which disrupted the five hundred year old Roman Republic and united the state in a new constitutional system, the Dyarchy, dual government by the First Citizen and the Republican Senate and magistracies. Emperors following Augustus were chosen from his family, proclaimed by Senate and Army, until the death of Nero in 68. Nero’s overthrow by the palace guard and subsequent suicide led to the famous year 69, the year of the four emperors, when the Army and its leaders learned that emperors could be made elsewhere than in Rome. But with the accession of the general Vespasian, the Empire entered a period of peace and prosperity lasting until the murder of the emperor Commodus in 192. The civil war which followed shook the foundations of the state. The victor in the civil war, Septimius Severus (193-211), as he lay dying, revealed to his sons the secret of the empire: “Enrich the army and despise the rest.” In the next forty years there were twelve official emperors, not one of whom died in his bed. After 253 emperors rose and fell in every part of the empire with such fateful rapidity that it is almost impossible to count them.

  To political instability was added the constant threat of foreign invasion. The Germanic tribes of Franks and Alamanns menaced the Rhine frontier, while the Goths surged against the Lower Danube. Periodically the Germans broke through the frontier and ravaged the West. In the East the Persians underwent a national revival under a restored dynasty and a renewed religious faith, Zoroastrianism. Persian armies swept into Syria, and in 260 even the Emperor Valerian himself was taken prisoner.

  The maintenance of the army and the ravages of war, civil and foreign, strained the Roman economy beyond its limits. As costs mounted, taxation remained almost stable. Instead of reforming the cumbersome tax system, the emperors resorted to depreciating the currency. The coinage degenerated in appearance and in content of precious metal; in the early third century, the well minted silver denarius was valued at 1250 per pound of gold; by 301 it had become a silver washed lump of bronze rated at 50,000 to a pound of gold.

  Paradoxically, the sector of the population most affected was the civil service and the army dependent on their wages. Since taxes were not increased, salaries could not be raised and inflation gnawed away at the real value of their income. Soldiers augmented their pay by looting; civil servants by increased fees for services and by outright corruption. The government granted increasingly frequent bonuses to the army and civil service, arbitrarily exacted from the Senate and the town councils. In addition, the government issued free rations and uniforms to both classes, requisitioning them from an already heavily burdened public.

   The devastation of civil war and foreign invasion combined with wholesale requisition of crops and cattle were ruinous to Roman agriculture. Peasants deserted the land for work in the towns or for lives of brigandage. By the late third century, abandoned lands were affecting government revenue, and the decurions, the hereditary members of the town councils, were declared collectively responsible for maintaining the previous levels of taxation. Even more disastrously, these twin scourges of devastation and requisition resulted in frequent famine which in turn made the population more susceptible to epidemics. All these factors seem to have combined to shrink the population from the late third century on.

  Amid these calamities, the traditional order of society was disrupted. At the top of the social scale, many of the wealthy and stubbornly pagan senatorial families, who held the ancient republican offices, governed the provinces and commanded the armies, were killed off or ruined in the frequent changes of emperors. Many either sought to evade holding expensive magistracies or were barred from office by suspicious emperors. The knights, upperclass businessmen, who traditionally supplied officers to the army and officials to the civil service, found their order thrown open to the lower ranks of the army who aspired to careers as generals, governors and even emperors. The decurions or town councillors, the well-to-do middle class property owners who managed and maintained the cities, began to evade their increasingly burdensome duties. Since the Empire was in fact a great federation of self-governing cities, the dying civic loyalty of the decurions threatened the whole administrative and financial structure of the Empire. At the bottom of the social scale the army, which supplied as well the lower grades of the civil service, no longer attracted the sons of veterans who normally supplied the largest number of voluntary recruits to its ranks. The old order was shaken. Concludes A. H. M. Jones: “Now the sense of noblesse oblige was failing among the aristocracy, the spirit of civic patriotism was fast vanishing in the middle class, the discipline of the troops was decaying, and there was nothing to take their place.”




IN 284, the Emperor Numerian, leading his army home from a campaign against Persia, was found dead in his litter. The legions promptly acclaimed the commander of the imperial body guard, Valerius Diocles, emperor, under the name Diocletian. Thirty-nine years old at his accession, he was a man of humble origin, the son of an ex-slave clerk from the mountains of what is today Yugoslavia, a favorite recruiting ground for the Roman army. With a force of character which dominated his able colleagues and with a genius for careful administration, he would reign for twenty years, 284-305, and die peacefully in retirement in 313. Under his rule the Dyarchy of First Citizen and Senate established by Augustus Caesar would give way to the Dominate, an out-and-out military dictatorship. The emperor was in fact the supreme fount of law, though theoretically bound by the law. Diocletian surrounded his person, now clad in gold and jewels, with the elaborate Persian court ceremonies. Everything associated with him became sacred as he ruled under the protection of Jupiter. He was addressed as “Lord and God.” All prostrated themselves when entering his presence. All stood while he remained seated during imperial consistories (a term which later passed into papal practice to describe the formal meetings of the pope and his cardinals). All this pomp had the practical effect of exalting the emperor above the ambitious generals from whose ranks Diocletian had so recently risen.

The First Tetrarchy:
Diocletian, Maximian, Diocletian, and Constantius
. ca.300
Christ Depicted as Helios, the Sun-God.  mosaic,  early 290s

  Soon after his accession, Diocletian recognized the need for expanding the administration to govern an empire beyond the control of a single individual. He named Maximian, another Illyrian general of peasant origin, augustus of the West, a name now become a technical term for a senior emperor. From his nomadic court, often in residence at Nicomedia, Diocletian ruled the East directly and continued to dominate his colleague in the West. In 293 he further sub-divided the administration, naming Constantius Chlorus, father of the future emperor Constantine who would summon the Council of Nicaea, caesar or junior emperor for the West, and Galerius, caesar for the East. These two were to learn their jobs from their seniors and in due time replace them. But the Empire remained a legal whole, divided only for administrative purposes. In a further reorganization of the administration which would leave its mark on the Church’s organization, Diocletian divided the existing provinces, formed of cities and their hinterland into 100 new provinces, separating civil from military duties. Provinces were further grouped into 13, later 15, dioceses administered by vicars. Dioceses were further grouped together into prefectures: Gaul, comprising modern England, France, Spain and Morocco; Italy, including northern Africa, Italy, northern Yugoslavia and Austria; Illyricum, comprising Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia and Greece; the Orient, stretching from Thrace around the Levant to Egypt.

Though the empire had been badly shaken, the emperor still ruled through a vast and well-ordered administration which gave him authority which would bewitch the Christian bishops once he was no longer their dreaded persecutor. Beside each emperor stood the pretorian prefects, in effect prime ministers who supervised the vicars of the dioceses and the governors of the provinces, acted as supreme court of appeal, army chief of staff, adjutant and quartermaster general, and oversaw the state arms factories and vast network of roads. Among the chief ministers, the quaestor acted as attorney general; the master of offices supervised the imperial secretariate, the foreign office, and the state messengers, often used as inspectors and secret police; two Counts of Finance managed the state revenues and the imperial estates. Three chief secretaries saw to the voluminous correspondence of the court, chief of whom was the master of memory who as chief legal counsel drafted legislation. A lesser administrative official, the Grand Chamberlain, a eunuch, could often exercise great political power as his supervision of the court and palace brought him into close contact with the emperor.

 Each of the 100 provinces had its governor with a staff of 100 subordinates flanked by a count in the interior provinces and a duke on the frontier who commanded the military. Over the governors presided 13, later 15, vicars with staffs of 300. The city of Rome itself and later Constantinople were administered by Prefects of the City who headed the Senate, managed the city government, police, water supply, food supply and markets. There were in all about 30,000 civil servants, now dressed in uniforms and regarded as extensions of imperial power.

  The army, raised by Diocletian to about 500,000-600,000 men, whose backbone was the heavy infantry legion of 1000 flanked by light foreign infantry and cavalry squadrons, was divided into a stationary force on the frontier and mobile divisions held in reserve for emergencies. The emperors in the East wisely kept command of the armies dispersed among five masters of the soldiers. The emperors in the West fatefully allowed the commands of infantry and cavalry to coalesce into one Master of Both Services who became the emperor’s rival and soon his master as well.

  The vitality of this vast governmental machine was shown by the financial reforms instituted by Diocletian. He introduced the indiction, a system whereby the tax structure of the empire was revised every 15 years. Land was evaluated according to quantity and quality and divided for tax purposes into jugera, theoretically the amount of land required to support one peasant family. Each year a governmental budget was drawn up and taxes pro-rated on each jugerum to be collected by the decurions under supervision of the governors. Taxes rose to one-third of the farmer’s gross product.

  But it was a sluggish vitality at best, for Diocletian attempted to impose a freeze on the prices of the principal commodities for sale in the public markets, a measure promptly bypassed by dealings in the black market. More ominously, workers were frozen into the guilds of workers providing services essential to the state, bakers, shoemakers, arms smiths and the like. ln the cities, the decurions were locked into their order; in the countryside, the peasants became coloni, bound to the land they worked. More and more little men looked to wealthy and powerful patrons to protect them from the rigors of law and taxation. The mobs of the cities found an outlet for their repressed political aspirations in cheering for their favorites in the chariot races held in the great circuses.

  In 305 Diocletian abdicated and persuaded his reluctant colleague in the West, Maximian to do likewise. Whereupon he retired to his vast and still existent palace in Split, Yugoslavia, where he devoted his last years to growing prize cabbages. In the East Galerius succeeded as augustus with the brutal Maximin Daia as caesar. In the West, Constantius Chlorus became augustus with Severus as caesar. After a century of disorder, the transition of supreme power seemed to have been accomplished peacefully. Unfortunately for Diocletian’s well-laid plans, Constantine, son of Constantius Chlorus, and Maxentius, son of the retired Maximian, passed over in the succession, sulked in the background.



Maximian, Augustus,
retired 305
Constantius Chlorus, Caesar

Diocletian, Augustus,
retired 305
Galerius, Caesar

Constantius Chlorus,
Augustus, died 306
Severus,Caesar, killed by Maxentius, 306

Maxentius and
Augusti from 306

Galerius, Augustus,
died 311

Maximin Daia,

Maximin Daia
and Licinius,

defeated Maxentius 312

Licinius defeated Maximin Daia 313

Constantine defeated Licinius, 324,

ruled as sole Augustus till 337





RELIGIOUS belief within this far-flung empire ranged from a lofty but nebulous pantheism to primitive animism. The Romans were traditionally tolerant of the beliefs of others, willing to allow a wide diversity as long as believers supported the state and did not outrage the Roman sense of decency. The ancient gods of the Roman people led by Jupiter the Thunderer and his consort Juno naturally held pride of place. Once they had conquered the Greek city states, the Romans could easily find that Zeus and Hera exercised equivalent functions in the Greek pantheon. Thus the wealth of Greek literature saturated with religious belief could be used to enrich the rather unimaginative theology of the Romans. But the great high gods of the Romans and Greeks were the austere patrons of the state and evoked little personal emotional response from the masses. Nonetheless the great literature which they inspired had a charm which long captivated the minds of Roman intellectuals. Many came to see the gods as reflections of the power and perfections of one supreme deity and the beautifully expressed stories about them as mere allegories. The cult of the deified emperor also served to bolster the authority of the state. Few probably really believed the living emperor divine; certainly few prayed to him, and by the fourth century the imperial cult had been secularized to such an extent that it represented little more than the respect due to powerful heads of state.

   Beside the exalted traditional gods of old Rome swarmed an army of more exotic deities. In the great dim temples of the Valley of the Nile, the Egyptians still worshipped their age-old zoomorphic gods, cats sacred to Bastad, Horus the falcon, Souchos the crocodile, Apis the bull and their like elaborately embalmed after their death. In Syria and North Africa the crowds revered the local Baals and Ashtoreths with fertility rites and ritual prostitution turning the rivers red with the blood of the sacrificed Adonis. To the north of Syria the citizens of Emesa honored the sacred stone which the sun god had sent from heaven. Throughout Asia Minor the dominant gods under a variety of names were the Great Mother and her son and consort, in whose honor frenzied devotees castrated themselves. Farther west in Illyricum the unconquered sun was the focus of devotion. In the Celtic lands of Europe the pious worshipped the gods and goddesses of spring, river, and forest, and above all the sun. All of these gods became closely associated with villages and towns and took on particular characteristics in the jealous local cults. Sometimes they were identified with the gods of the Greek and Roman pantheon, and Baal often wore the mask of Zeus or Jupiter.

  In the great towns the more cosmopolitan middle and lower classes and some of the aristocracy, emotionally dissatisfied with the gods of the state and with little taste for philosophical reflection, turned to the mystery religions. Through secret rites of exotic ancient oriental flavor, the devotee was initiated into their theology, purified and assured of some form of life after death. The worship of the Phrygian Great Mother with her sacred black stone and eunuch priests was introduced in Rome during the stress of the Second Punic War (218-201 BC). At first, the orgiastic rites of the cult, which included frenzied self-mutilation and castration, led to its being confined to one temple on the Palatine Hill, but later it spread throughout Italy. Somewhat later the cult of Isis, the earth mother, her consort Serapis and their son Horus reached Rome from Egypt. The devotees of Isis participated in an annual rite celebrating the death of Serapis and his resurrection through the efforts of Isis. A more recent import from Asia Minor was the cult of Mithras who had slain the bull of darkness and safeguarded heavenly light and truth for humankind. Washed by the blood of a slaughtered bull and fed with a sacramental meal of bread and wine, the devotee absorbed the vigor of the sacred bull and was promised eternal life.

 All these exotic deities and cults point up the basically religious nature of the period. People were intensely interested in winning the favor of higher forces amid the difficulties of human life. They sought to placate the gods and win their favor through magic and foresee the future through astrology. They longed for assurance of happiness in an afterlife better than they had known in the material prison of this world. Their religions offered no program of social justice, no hope of bettering the world in which they lived. So they clung to this great ill-organized ramshackle system, voluntarily maintaining without central authority the temples and priests that served the communities of initiates in every village and town. Except in Egypt there was no professional priesthood; local dignitaries were elected annually to serve as priests along with their other public duties. But paganism was all pervasive: the Senate opened its deliberations by burning incense at the Altar of Victory; magistrates and soldiers sacrificed to the gods as part of their public duties; the theater, athletics, the race track, were all parts of celebrations in honor of gods; above all, education was founded on the great classics that contained the divine mythologies.

  It was in this world of thought and devotion that Christianity was born and developed. The Christian Church too had its Savior-God who died and rose from the dead. Its devotees came to share the life of Christ through the rites of baptism which initiated them into divine life and of the Eucharist which sustained it. The Christians voluntarily organized their communities and supported their priests. They appealed to the same urban middle and lower classes as the mystery religions, at first scarcely touching the aristocracy and the peasants. But they resolutely refused to worship the gods of their neighbors, regarding them as demoniacal forces. They would have no part in the sacred rites which the pagan regarded as essential to the maintenance of divine favor. They avoided too the spectacles in theaters and athletic contests held in honor of the gods. They were wary of even dining out in an age when most meat for sale had come from the temple sacrifices (1 Cor. 10:23-30). Military and civil service they avoided because they involved oaths and duties their religion could not countenance. This avoidance of customs regarded as natural by their pagan neighbors soon earned for them a reputation as enemies of the human race.

  Yet Christianity had a social ethos that appealed to many. The Christians were profoundly cosmopolitan. Their faith transcended all local boundaries; they were professedly a non-nation. They were also profoundly egalitarian. There was to be among them no Greek, no Jew, no slave or free (Gal 3:28; Col 3:11). In Rome in the early third century, as Peter Brown points out, “the Church included a powerful freedman chamberlain of the emperor; its bishop was a former slave of that freedman; it was protected by the emperor’s mistress, and patronized by noble ladies.” The Christians also formed strong local communities led by a bishop assisted by priests, deacons and deaconesses which were conscious of common bonds among all similar communities. Their literature is full of expressions of peace, unanimity, concord, charity, society, community which reveal an underlying sense of “communio,” a bond based on a common faith and love. Christians of the local community were conscious of unity among themselves and their bishop; bishops expressed their sense of unity with other bishops by constant written communication and meetings. Communio was more than a union of common purpose. The Christian community was called together by Christ and based on faith in him and sacramental union with him. This consciousness found expression in the drawing up of lists of bishops who were on good relations with one another, in letters of recommendation granted to travelers assuring other communities of their sincere adherence to the Church, in the custom of inviting visiting bishops to preside at the Eucharist of the host communities. Communio was a powerful force that bound the local community and its bishop together in an organic unity, set it off from the pagan world surrounding it, and united it with its fellow communities throughout the Roman world. Moreover, the Christians expressed their communio practically by taking care of their own. ln times of emergency the Christian clergy was often the only group capable of organizing the food supply and burying the dead. By 250 the Church in Rome was supporting 1500 poor and widows. ln 254 and 256 the Churches of Rome and Carthage sent large sums of money to Africa and Cappadocia to ransom Christian captives from the bands of barbarian invaders. It was perhaps above all this sense of community which attracted to the ranks of the Church the Roman citizen lost as an individual in a vast impersonal empire, whose ancient cities had lost his allegiance.

  The aspect of communio most apposite for our purpose is the frequent consultation of bishops among themselves as embodiments of the communities over which they presided. The bishops could read in the Acts of the Apostles of the method of the apostolic church in dealing with the first great crisis of the Church: to what extent must a Gentile convert take upon himself the obligations of Judaism. Peter and Paul met with the leader of the Jerusalem community, James, and resolved the dispute as it seemed good to them and the Holy Spirit, largely freeing Gentile Christians of the burdens of Judaic law borne by their Jewish Christian confreres (Acts 15). There is no record of subsequent councils of bishops until the outbreak of Montanism, which had its origin in the teachings of Montanus who taught from 156 to 172 in Phrygia, always a center of religious fanaticism. In the face of the increasing institutionalization of the Christian Church, Montanus taught the apocalyptic outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Church in a Heavenly Jerusalem soon to appear and already begun through the prophets and prophetesses of the sect, who developed an ascetic rigorism opposed to what they regarded as the lax rules of marriage, fasting and penitential discipline. Ordinary Catholics were regarded as psychics or “animal men” while Montanists were pneumatics, spirit-filled. The issue before the bishops was not a theological aberration but a new discipline. They must determine the locus of the action of the Holy Spirit—the prophets and prophetesses of the new provisional Montanist sect living in the expectation of the apocalypse, or the wider, permanent, institutional Church presided over by the bishops. In 175 the earliest known council of bishops and laymen was called to deal with the problem of Montanism and by 200 a series of Asiatic councils had condemned the sect.

  Conciliar methods of government had proved their worth; in 190 Pope Victor ordered a series of councils to resolve the dispute over the manner of calculating the date of Easter since East and West differed on the issue. Recorded councils met in Pontus, Palestine, Syria and Osrohene without resolving the issue to the Pope’s satisfaction. In a Roman council of 250-51, 60 Italian bishops met under the presidency of the bishop of Rome. From the 220’s on in Africa the calling of councils was a well developed custom much used by Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (248-258), to resolve the problems arising out of the persecution of the Christians; in the Council of Carthage of 256-257, 87 African bishops were present. There is little record of councils in Gaul and Spain, but at the Council of Elvira in c. 306, important for its 87 severe disciplinary canons, 33 bishops from southwest Spain were in attendance presided over by Ossius, bishop of Cordoba who would be active in conciliar activity throughout his long life (257-357). Few councils are recorded in Egypt where the bishop of Alexandria dominated ecclesiastical affairs. At a council in Antioch in 252, called to deal with problems in the aftermath of the severe Decian persecution, bishops of Syria, Palestine, Cappadocia and even the bishop of Alexandria were in attendance. Again at Antioch in 264-68 councils were called to deal with the theological aberrations of Paul, eccentric bishop of Samosata. In 314 at Ancyra 12 to 18 bishops from Asia Minor and Syria met to establish penitential discipline for those who had denied the faith in the recent persecution. Even this incomplete list is evidence enough that the council, a meeting of bishops to resolve theological and disciplinary disputes among the faithful, had a long history behind it before the Council of Nicaea.

 There is evidence to show that the deliberative procedures of the Roman Senate left their mark on the collective deliberations of the Christian bishops. Bishops adopted for many of their councils the official senatorial formulae of convocation. Like the Senate the council was a deliberative assembly, each bishop having equal rights in its discussions. Like the imperial magistrate who presided over the Senate, the principal bishop first read out a program designed to keep discussion to the point at issue. The assembled bishops were then interrogated and each offered his sententia, his official response. A final vote was usually not necessary, for the sententiae most often issued in unanimity, the result of previous negotiation. The unanimous decision was circulated among the faithful in a synodal letter. Bishops then felt themselves bound to abide by the decisions thus promulgated. Constantine would later find the Church governed by procedures with which he was familiar.

 1.4. CHURCH and STATE



SINCE the reign of the emperor Nero (54-68), who foisted the blame for the famous burning of Rome on to the Christians, the very name Christian was enough to involve its bearer in the toils of the Roman courts. In addition, the refusal of the Christians to swear allegiance to the gods of the state and to a divine emperor raised governmental suspicion about the political loyalty of the Church. It soon became clear to the Roman authorities that the Christians were not just a Jewish sect and therefore not protected by the laws which granted a generous but expensive measure of toleration to that stubbornly monotheistic race. Popular feeling as well supported the official suspicion of the Christians. In the eyes of the pagan masses the Christians were atheists who did not worship the traditional gods. They were suspected of sexual license as they celebrated their “love feasts.” They were cannibals because they ate the flesh of the Son of Man and drank His blood. In the second century the emperor Trajan’s reply to the anxious request of Pliny, governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor, for instructions on how to handle the increasingly numerous Christians in his area throws light on the government’s attitude toward the Christians. “They are not to be sought out; but if they are accused and convicted, they must be punished—yet on this condition, that who so denies himself to be Christian, and makes that fact plain by his action, that is, by worshipping our gods, shall obtain pardon in his repentance, however suspicious his past conduct may be. Papers, however, which are presented unsigned ought not to be admitted in any charge, for they are a very bad example and unworthy of our time.”

  Unti1250, persecution was sporadic and unofficial. But in that year, in an effort to stem the general decline, the emperor Decius sought to appease the gods by dealing with the atheistic Christians. The precision and efficiency of his measures reveal the power of the state even in the turmoil of the third century. At a given date, throughout the Empire, all were ordered to sacrifice to the gods under the eye of government officials and receive certificates attesting to this fact. In 257 the emperor Valerian ordered the arrest of all Christian senators and knights and the execution or deportation of the bishops and priests hitherto arrested. At this time thousands of Christians apostatized or procured fraudulent certificates of pagan orthodoxy, creating grave problems for the penitential discipline of the Church. But for all his piety, Valerian was defeated and murdered in the East by the invading Persians. His successor Gallienus in 260 called off the persecutions, released the imprisoned clergy and even restored its buildings and property to the Church.

  It was in the late third century, an era relatively free of persecution, that the Church came to terms with Greco-Roman culture. Under the influence of men like Justin Martyr (100-165) in the West and more especially Origen of Alexandria (185-254) in the East the Christian Church found that it could identify with the culture, outlook and needs of the average well-to-do civilian. From being a sect ranged against or alongside of Roman civilization, Christianity had become a Church prepared to absorb a whole society. As Peter Brown observes, “This was probably the most important aggiornamento in the history of the Church; it was certainly the most decisive single event in the culture of the third century. For the conversion of a Roman emperor to Christianity, of Constantine in 312, might not have happened—or, if it had, it would have taken on a totally different meaning—if it had not been preceded for two generations by the conversion of Christianity to the culture and ideals of the Roman world.” By the early fourth century a council of Spanish bishops ruled on the conditions according to which Christians might hold municipal offices and even the high priesthood of the imperial cult. For the Christian apologists of the early fourth century like Lactantius (250-320), Christianity was the sole guarantee of Roman civilization. Only by being confirmed by Christian revelation could the best traditions of classical philosophy and ethics be saved from the ravages of the barbarians. Only the Christian God could save the Empire from destruction.

Emperor Maximian offers Incense to the Goddess Diana 
Wall-mosaic, Piazzra Armerina, Sicily, ca. 290 

Incense-offering, 3rd cent.


Peace between Church and State, however, was not to last. About 298 as Diocletian and his caesar Galerius were sacrificing to obtain the omens, the soothsayers were unable to find the usual marking on the victims’ livers after repeated attempts. The chief soothsayer then denounced the Christian officials present as responsible for the failure by crossing themselves as protection against the demons. Outraged, Diocletian ordered the entire court—soldiers and civil servants—to sacrifice. Then the relatively tolerant Diocletian, probably at the instigation of the more fanatically pagan Galerius, broadened his attack on the Christians in 303. Christians were ordered to surrender their sacred books and their churches were to be destroyed. A detachment of troops promptly demolished the church of Nicomedia which stood in sight of the imperial residence. The next day all Christians were deprived of their rank. The hardy Christian who tore down the edict was executed by prolonged torture. After two fires broke out in the palace, a second edict was proclaimed ordering the arrest of all bishops and priests. When the arrested clergy overcrowded the Roman prisons, never designed for long-term confinement, the emperor in a third edict ordered them released after being forced to offer sacrifice to the gods. In 304, Diocletian, in a fourth edict, resorted to the tactic Decius had used 50 years before: all citizens were ordered to sacrifice and obtain certificates recording their act. Implementation of the four edicts varied throughout the Empire. ln the West the caesar Constantius Chlorus published the first edict but confined his efforts to the destruction of the churches. There is no evidence that the second or third or even the severe fourth edict was even promulgated in the West. Relatively few died in this persecution, but thousands underwent arrest and torture, while all Christians suffered from insecurity and the insults of the pagans.

  In 305, Diocletian, who had been in ill health, resigned along with his co-augustus of the West, Maximian. As Constantius Chlorus became new augustus of the West, he asked Galerius, new augustus of the East, to send him his son Constantine. Now about twenty, Constantine was the son of Helena, ex-barmaid wife of Constantius Chlorus, who had divorced her in 293.  For the last twelve years he had been living at Diocletian’s court, ostensibly pursuing his education, actually as a hostage for his father’s good conduct. Galerius agreed but the next day changed his mind and attempted to halt Constantine’s journey to the West. But Constantine moved fast, disabling the horses of the imperial posting stations, effectively thwarting his pursuers. He joined his father in northern Gaul and accompanied Constantius to Britain to campaign against the Picts. In 306 at his father’s death at York, he was acclaimed augustus by the legions. His claims were recognized only in Britain and Gaul. Reluctantly, the eastern augustus Galerius finally recognized him as caesar, but raised Severus as augustus of the West. Later in 306, Maxentius, son of the retired augustus Maximian, was acclaimed augustus at Rome. With his father’s help he rallied Africa and Spain to his cause and defeated and executed Severus, the legitimate augustus. To cement an alliance with Constantine, Maximian offered him his daughter. Constantine promptly married her. After Maximian quarreled with his son, Maxentius, he fled to Constantine, against whom he soon rebelled and was executed. Vainly Galerius in the East made Licinius augustus of the West, who succeeded in holding Illyria while the remainder of the West was still divided between Constantine and Maxentius.





THE Christians of the West, from 306, found themselves free from persecution under the more tolerant rule of Constantine and Maxentius. In the East, however, the caesar Maximin Daia renewed the persecution, forcing all again to sacrifice. The next year he began sending obstinate Christians to work in the mines and quarries of Egypt and southern Palestine, blinding their right eyes and cutting the tendons of their left legs. In this brutal policy the augustus Galerius cooperated until stricken ill in 311. In that year, in agony from cancer of the bowels, he declared toleration for the Christians and induced Maximin Daia to acquiesce. As  Galerius lay dying, the mutilated Christians were allowed to return to their homes. Soon, however, Maximin Daia returned to the attack by indirect means. He encouraged the various cities of the East to denounce Christians and drive them from their homes. He launched an attempted reform of the pagan cults by appointing a high priest in each city to supervise worship and keep an eye on the Christians. But by 312 the executions began again, and during this final storm Lucian the influential theologian of Antioch was martyred.

  In 312 Maxentius prepared to move against Constantine and Licinius to make himself master of the West. But Constantine attacked rapidly and quickly reduced all of northern Italy. He then turned south toward Rome where Maxentius feverishly prepared for a siege. As Constantine approached with inferior forces, Maxentius unwisely sallied out of the Flaminian Gate toward the north. Constantine decisively defeated him and he died in the crush of his army retreating into Rome across the Milvian Bridge. Now that he was master of the West, in October, 312, an obliging Senate acclaimed the young Constantine senior augustus.

Colossal Bust of Constantine
 4th cent.
Mosaic of Constantine as Saint
Hagia Sophia

In the same year in the East, Licinius moved against Maximin Daia, who began to relax his persecution of the Christians in the face of a triple threat—his defeat by the Christian king of Armenia, famine and plague which ravaged his domains, the hostility of Licinius. Maximin retired to southern Asia Minor, but when Licinius forced a crucial pass, he killed himself. Licinius, master of the East, met Constantine at Milan where they resolved their differences and compromised on a common policy toward the Christians: the property of the church was to be returned and full liberty of worship permitted.

  The inscription on the great arch erected in Rome by the orders of the Senate to commemorate his triumph reveals a curious fact about Constantine’s victory: “To the Emperor Caesar Flavius Constantine, the Greatest, the Pious, the Fortunate, Augustus, because by the prompting of the Divinity and the greatness of his soul, he with his forces avenged the commonwealth with just arms both on the tyrant and all his factions, the Senate and people of Rome dedicated this triumphal arch.” The pagan Senate makes no mention of the gods; they refer only to a vague divinity, knowing that Constantine believed the ancient gods had no part in his victory. In fact, Constantine’s victorious army had borne on their shields the strange device of a Greek chi set over a rho, the first letters of the name Christos. Constantine believed wholeheartedly that he had won the West through the mercy of the Christian God.Authors have long been divided about Constantine’s religious beliefs at the time of his victory, his decree of tolerance to the Christians and afterward. Some have regarded him simply as a political opportunist without religious conviction who sought to win the Christians to his side to strengthen his hold on the Empire. Others have seen him as a religious syncretist, recognizing all religions, again to strengthen his political power. Today, most would admit that Constantine was sincere about his rather confused faith in the Christian God at the time of his victory at the Milvian Bridge and gradually grew in the knowledge of his new faith, always believing that a common orthodox faith was necessary for the preservation of a unified Empire.

Christ the Sun-God, 
Mosaic, 380s
Chi-Rho  on Christian Sarcophagus
 early 300s

  When proclaimed emperor in 306 by the legions at York in Britain in succession to his father Constantius Chlorus, he was like his father a solar syncretist, worshipping a solar divinity under the name of Apollo. His religious outlook gradually gave way to a philosophic monotheism and reverence for the divine spirit by whom the universe was governed and whose symbol was the sun. But even at this stage he must have known of Christianity. His father had not implemented the persecution of Christians in those parts of the empire under his jurisdiction, and one of his sisters bore the Christian name of Anastasia (Resurrection). As Constantine moved toward the decisive battle at the Milvian Bridge outside of Rome which would give him control of the West, he underwent some sort of religious experience; his biographers speak of his seeing a cross in the sky and a subsequent dream explaining that under this sign he would conquer. Whereupon he put a Christian emblem on his legions’ shields, and conquer he did.

Constantine's Victory at the Milvian Bridge in 312, Triumphal arch, 380s

Then in 313 he and his co-emperor in the  East, Licinius, proclaimed religious toleration throughout the Empire. Though he avoided baptism, retained until his death the pagan title pontifex maximus, and allowed pagan symbolism on his coinage down to 320, from 312 on there is clear evidence that he had growing faith in Christ and favored the Christian Church. By 313 he was making large contributions to the Church in Africa, and at Rome had begun a series of great churches, putting the Lateran Palace at the bishop’s disposal and heavily endowing these institutions. By law the clergy were exempted from onerous public functions; wills in favor of the Church were permitted, and slaves could be freed in the Christian churches. Still these privileges were already those of pagan priests and institutions. Even the declaration of the first day of the week as a day of rest was ambiguous, since it was both the day of Christ’s resurrection and the day sacred to the sun. By 315-316 Christian ideas began to modify the harshness of the Roman civil law itself: crucifixion was abolished; concubinage outlawed; children protected; branding on the face forbidden; and laws against celibacy repealed.

  Constantine had learned, too, the Church’s methods of dealing with internal problems from his attempts to settle the Donatist schism which grew out of an African controversy over the validity of sacraments conferred by clerics who had lapsed into paganism or turned over Christian books and vessels to the pagan authorities during the persecutions. Since the Donatists refused to recognize such sacraments and demanded baptism and ordination anew while the Catholics recognized them as valid, the African Church underwent a bitter and long-standing schism. When the case was first presented to him in 314, Constantine applied the Roman juridical procedure by setting up a court of investigation and judgment by a commission of bishops. Militiades, bishop of Rome, with great presence of mind, turned the court into an ecclesiastical synod by including a number of ltalian bishops. But the bishops never questioned the emperor’s right to intervene. Once Constantine had learned of the Church’s procedure, he followed it in subsequent deal ings with the Donatists and would follow it again in the case of the Arians.







BC- Augustus Caesar. - AD 14


Death of Nero.


First recorded church council.


Death of Commodus and beginning of political disorder.


First general persecution of Christians.


Diocletian reorganized Empire.


Diocletian’s persecution of Christians.


Constantine proclaimed emperor.


Constantine seized Rome.


Edict of Toleration.


Constantine became sole emperor.


Council of Nicaea.





  THE institutional structure of the Roman Empire is detailed in A. H. M. Jones, The Decline of the Ancient World (London, 1961). A short reliable secular history of the period is Glanville Downey, The Late Roman Empire (New York, 1969). Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity, A.D. 150-750 (London, 1971), in word and picture beautifully captures the spirit of the age. The story of the Church’s adaptation to the Roman world is told in R.A. Marcus, Christianity in the Roman World (New York, 1974). The standard histories of the Early Church are Louis Duchesne, The Early History of the Christian Church, 3 vols. (London, 1909) and Hans Lietzmann, A History of the Early Church, 4 vols. (London, 1961). The persecutions of the Christians are authoritatively analyzed in W.H.C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Garden City, 1967). The changes in religious sentiment are described in E.R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety (Cambridge, 1965) and A. Momigliano, ed., The Conflict between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century (Oxford, 1963), There is a good brief biography of Constantine in A.H.M. Jones, Constantine and the Conversion of Europe (London, 1948); the controversies surrounding his conversion are treated in John W. Eadie, ed., The Conversion of Constantine (New York, 1971). F. Dvornik, Early Christian and Byzantine Political Theory, 2 vols. (Washington, 1966) deals fully with the question of church and state, and his “Emperors, Popes and General Councils,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 6 (1951), 1-23, advances the thesis that the procedure of the early councils was modeled on that of the Roman Senate. Ludwig von Hertling, Communio (Chicago, 1947) analyzes the bonds of union in the early church. A sound one-volume history of the Church is W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity (Philadelphia, 1984).





 [1]  Restoring the Image

[ 1. Restoring the Divine Image ]





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