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Christianity and the Roman Empire, Part Two

Posted August 20th, 2017 at 05:10 PM by Valens
Updated January 25th, 2018 at 01:24 AM by Valens

The Crisis of the Third Century and Roman Religion

The third century had, in many ways, been a tumultuous time for the Roman state. The deep political crisis of Augustus' Principate had many subtle consequences on the overall Roman society and the Classical civilization as a whole.

The problems that would come to trouble the Roman state and people in the third century had surfaced much earlier, arguably during the early Principate already. Nevertheless, following the downfall of the Flavian dynasty and the advent of Trajan and his able heirs, it seemed that Rome had achieved unprecedented amount of stability and order.
Since the accession of Nerva in 98 AD to the death of Commodus almost a hundred years later, there had been no violent change on the Imperial throne or civil wars - something quite unusual for the Romans, who fought more among themselves than against any foreign enemy.

However, as history had demonstrated so often, the seeds of demise of one civilization are sown when it had appeared to be the strongest.

Rome had reached its zenith in the mid second century AD, at a time when administration of the Empire was in able hands, and its bureaucratic machinery enabled to keep the vast, culturally and linguistically heterogeneous Empire together.

It was the accession of Commodus as Emperor in 180 AD that has usually been described as a one of the crucial points in Roman history. "For our history now descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust." Wrote famously Cassius Dio in his Roman History.

When the young Emperor Alexander Severus was killed by his soldiers in Mainz in 235, some forty years after the death of Commodus, Roman Empire had descended into a period of political crisis that would last for half a century.

The crisis which had gripped the Roman world was a profound one, and certainly not limited to mere depositions of the Emperors and a series of bloody coups and civil wars - this was a crisis that pervaded nearly all aspects of Greco-Roman civilization.

By the time of Diocletian, an irreversible process of collapse of old Roman municipal system had commenced. Cities in the Western provinces had began to lose their population, hard pressed by increased taxes and frequent abuses of local government officials.
Trade, that flowed uninterrupted across Roman Empire and the Mediterranean and beyond, suffered due to civil wars, collapse of cities and infrastucture, general insecurity and the ruinous inflation that made money nearly worthless.

In the general climate of insecurity that reigned in the third century, old notions and traditional values were being re-examined and challenged. For the Romans, it seemed that the sacred link between the Roman state and the Gods had been broken, as if Rome's contract with the Gods was breached - something that, in Roman mind, was followed by calamity to the Roman state and its people.

The vast Roman world of the third century, which had incorporated into itself the various peoples, cultures and religions of the East, as well as distant tribes of the West, had by this time long shifted from the old Roman Republican traditions. Whether this was due to decadence of the Roman elites, as if often represented as a major cause behind Rome's demise, or due to the combination of many factors, is for the historians to determine.

Evidently, the crisis of the third century has had a profound influence on Roman religious life, which was firmly intertwined with Rome's Republican past.

As mentioned in the previous post, Roman religion had been under a profound Hellenistic influence since the Late Republic, if not earlier. Still, while most Roman gods had their Greek influences and had a same place in the Pantheon, Rome folk religion still revolved around the veneration of guardian deities, the Lares and the ancestor worship.

By the III century, however, the vastness of the Empire that led to frequent cultural exchange, also influenced religious life. Indeed, Rome had already 'imported' foreign deities and incorporated them into Roman Pantheon in the time of the Republic. But the increasing syncretization of religious life was becoming more apparent in the tumultuous socio-political climate of the III century.

In the III century, cults of Isis, Cybelle and Mithras were widely popular among the Roman elites, and the army, but also among slaves, ex-slaves and the upper classes.

One of the defining aspects of this era is the slow evolution of the Roman state's relationship with religion. In the turbulent times of political crisis, Imperial authority had weakened and became more reliant on raw military power.

While the Emperor's had always used religion for their political aims, the Imperial cult of the III century made it very clear that authority now depended more on divine, than worldly factors.

In 274, Emperor Aurelian, who reunited the Empire following a serious crisis, proclaimed Sol Invictus (Unconquerable Sun) an official cult.

Subsequent Emperors adopted the cult, and the God appeared on coins and was closely linked with the notion of victory and Imperial power. The changing concept of power in the Roman world reinforced the link between the Emperor and the divine, thus paving the way for Constantine's adoption or Christianity as an officially accepted religion in the Roman state.

When Christianity had first stepped into the scene, Rome already defined the relations between the state and numerous religious cults. Romans were unusually inclusive, and often adopted and integrated foreign religious cults into their Pantheon.
Various religious cults were able to co-exist together, while some enjoyed universal popularity among Roman society.

In return, the Roman state had certain expectations. The existing cults were tacitly expected not to disrupt the present social order, and, moreover, to reinforce the link between the Roman state and Gods.

From the III century, however, many of the cults proved unable to respond to the new needs and wants of Roman society, which was facing a profound crisis.

The old Greco-Roman traditional religion was in retreat, and the Imperial cult gained importance, as power itself became increasingly sacral.

In 250 AD, Emperor Decius enacted one of the most important Imperial acts of this era. The Edict of Decius demanded of all people in the Empire to prove their loyalty to Gods of their ancestors by offering sacrificial food and drink in the presence of local magistrates.

All those who complied with the Imperial order were to receive an official certificate (libellus) as an evidence of their loyalty to the Roman state and its Gods.

While Decius' order proved to be a largely inefficient attempt to preserve the status quo, it is a good indicator of Emperor's fears, not only for the link between the Gods and the Roman state, which was so important to Romans, but also for the unity of his people.

Instead of restoring proper religious order, the edict led to the first major persecutions of Christians by the Roman state. The edict also had an adverse effect on Christian communities themselves, as many Christians choose to offer the sacrifice demanded of them, rather then facing death.
The consequences were a cause of friction among Christians, as many of those who obeyed the edict, later re-joined Christian communities, to the displeasure of others who saw martyrdom as a preferable option to renouncing their beliefs.

While the early church eventually settled the conflict in a pragmatic way, the Roman state, weakened by decades of crisis and internal conflict, saw a solution in expanding the power of the Emperor.

Diocletian's rise to power marked an end to the crisis of the III century, but at the same time, meant a new start of a period of reform, in which the Roman state was to be reformed according to the socio-political and economic demands of the time.

Diocletian surrounded himself with Imperial splendor, that was to aid the sacral aura of the Emperor, no longer merely the first among equals (Primus Inter Pares), but a majestic, semi-divine ruler.
Instead of the decentralized structure of the administrative apparatus of the Principate, Diocletian introduced an elaborate bureaucracy, directly subordinated to the Emperor. The courts itself adopted a complicated and elaborate ceremonial, perhaps in the mold of Persian monarchs, which only aided to the image of Imperial power.

Diocletian showed a great deal of pragmatism in adapting Rome to the post-crisis circumstances, yet, in essence, he saw his task in restoring the glory of the old Empire, not founding a new one.
In the religious sphere, Diocletian attempted to usher the return to traditional Roman practices. In a series of edicts, Diocletian and his co-emperor Galerius, ordered a series of measures against Christians, resulting in a major, and most severe persecution in Roman history.

Just as with Decius' ill-done attempt to ensure the respect of the traditional Gods of the Roman state, Diocletian's policies had been a failure.
In many spheres, Diocletian's reforms were a foundations on which the later Emperors continued to build, but Constantine discounted the religious policies of his predecessor and opted for a radically different solution.

Already by the abdication of Diocletian, it seemed that the old Roman Pantheon was a thing of the past.

When Constantine emerged as the victor from the series of bloody civil wars, he was determined to forge a new link between the Christian God and the Roman state.
His predecessors had failed, but Constantine's triumph marked an era of religious renewal.

In this period of the transformation of Classical civilization, Roman Empire and Christianity were to lay the foundations for the creation of European Christian civilization.
It was in the relation between the Early Christian church and the Roman state, and Christian communities themselves, that a new era was to be forged on the foundations of Classical civilization, but not merely supplanting (or erasing) the legacy of Greece and Rome, but building onto it to create something new.

End of Part Two

The next entry will examine the relation between the Christian Church and the Roman state from the time of Constantine to Justinian, and the differences in the development of Christianity in the Latin West and the Greek East.
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