The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

The Pokey Finger of God header image 2

cold bed fellows

February 28th, 2008 · No Comments · christianity

This whole series has been riddled with errors, and the more I re-read them, the more problems I find. In this first one, I totally trash the Roman Emperors portion of the quiz.

1. Big C was the last Tetrarch of the
In a sense, he was never really an official Tetrarch, having usurped his position as Augustus, but he was named as ‘Caesar’ in the official Tetrarchy the following year, not that it changed his plans any.

2. Constantine co-ruled the western half of the Empire, while his counterpart, Maxentius, co-ruled the eastern half
False. Maxentius ruled Rome and the Italian peninsula. Galerius and his Caesars ruled the East.

3. Maxentius had the Persians.
False. Galerius had the Persians.

4. To counter these, “Mad” Max instituted a series of harsh laws and torments against anyone who wouldn’t follow the traditional religion.
Again, it was Galerius, but ‘Mad Gale’ just doesn’t have the same ring.

Here is a really good breakdown, year by year, of how the Tetrarchy played out after Diocletian. I wouldn’t try to do any better than this.

And now, some history on the Roman of Christians, as this is relevant to Constantine’s motivation to side with the Christians.

We know why the Christians were persecuted: they were anti-culture punks. Christians were well known to shun public worship of the state and local gods common to their neighbors, and thus were described as impious and unpatriotic atheists. Emperors sometimes took it personally when Christians shunned their personal cults.

We have rumors and brief records of spotty, localized persecution until the Emperor Decius Trajan began the “Certified Loyal” program in 250AD. Each citizen would be given a certificate proving their loyalty after sacrificing to the emperor before a Roman official. The persecution this incited brought general condemnation from the Roman peoples, and it was discontinued a year later, but it started a crease in the folds of history that would eventually rupture into the Donatist heresy.

Decius ruled during a time of extreme turmoil in the empire, being one in a long series of rulers either murdered or killed in battle after only a few years. He personally killed the previous emperor, was killed in battle, and was followed by three murdered by their own soldiers and one done down by the plague. Valerian and Gallienus were able to make the co-emperor trick work for seven years. After the death of Valerian, the empire split apart into warring factions marked largely by the appearance of multiple claimants to the throne from all corners.

Valerian restarted the loyalty certificate program for Christian clergy only in 253, and steadily ratcheted up the punishments in 257 and 258, also expanding the scope of the program to gradually include more people. This was ended by Valerian’s death in 260, as his co-Emperor immediately rescinded the program. No doubt Valerian perceived Christianity as yet another form of imperial fractioning, but one he had no means of combating.

However, the certificate programs themselves caused rifts within the Christian community. At the end of each persecution, the remaining Christians would be released from jails, and the ones who never denied their and were punished for not demonstrating worshipful loyalty to the emperor considered themselves more pure in their . Others who denied their to get the certificate, or who lied twice to get fake certificates, could be denied advancement within the church in some places. Thus the context of the Donatist conflict was a ‘failed’ bishop installed in Alexandria that caused a riot by the ‘pure of ’. But that’s another story.

From the perspective of the Roman emperors, persecution was a huge waste of time and money, and didn’t do much towards stopping the spread of foreign faiths throughout the empire. It didn’t help that every time a legion would be called from one place to the next to stop the spread of one faith, the legion itself would bring another. The next 40 years brought occasional edicts of toleration for the faith, but no further empire-wide persecution.

And then, the old-school Roman conservative Galerius became Diocletian’s co-emperor. Previously, Diocletian himself had been tolerant of the faith and even his family may have been adherents. Toward the end of his reign, in 303-304, Diocletian published four edicts designed to remove Christianity from the empire: churches and scriptures were to be confiscated and burned, all Christians were removed from public office, and all citizens were made to sacrifice to the old Roman gods of state upon pain of death. In 308, Galerius added an edict ordering all provisions in the markets should be sprinkled with sacrificial wine to prevent Christians from eating those provisions without committing apostasy. Finally, in 311, exhausted and defeated, Galerius admitted defeat in being unable to turn the tide and published edicts of toleration just prior to his own death.

All of the previous activity was going on while Constantine was slowly out-maneuvering the Tetrarchy of its power. At one point, there were six “Caesars” with full military complements dashing at border enemies and at each other. The Tetrarchy represented the official Roman State and its position was decidedly anti-Christian. Constantine was co-opting any group he could in order to gain control of the whole empire, and the Christians were grateful to have a champion.

From what Constantine said and wrote about religion, I can be sure that he was not a member of any , but rather saw the movement as a whole as something he could leverage. Perhaps he heard the notion of a ‘Universal Church’ and assumed that it existed already in a whole state. In any case, the Christians were prepared to accept whatever level of commitment they could get from a Roman Emperor, even if it only came in the form of mild tolerance.

Tags: ···