The Pokey Finger of God

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Christianity, version 2

April 20th, 2018 · No Comments · christianity, history

Most Roman Emperors were fakers, usurpers, and grifters. If you want a summary answer for why the Roman Empire fell, that’s really the best you’ll get. Really smart, motivated, and effective emperors were rare like hens’ teeth. The third century was a particularly harsh time when reigns were short and most ended at the tip of a dagger. Septimus Severus was the last emperor for a century to die of natural causes.

At the end of this crisis, the Empire developed into a new form under a particularly clever and thoughtful hand: Diocletian backed into the job, but took it more seriously than had the two dozen power-hungry egotists before him, reforming every aspect of the government and economics. He reshaped every province, created a new layer of governance, and defined a structure for four co-emperors to simultaneously and evenly rule the whole empire. (That new layer of government? Those were the “dioceses”, each ruled by an “episcopos” or “bishop” who held power equivalent to an emperor within the three provinces of their respective diocese.)

Diocletian eliminated the long-failed silver coin-based tax system in favor of direct bartering. He reorganized his administration into a top-down autocracy, with ministers in charge of finance and governmental tasks. He codified his judicial rulings in books that enabled lower courts to use precedent to resolve most issues. He also restricted the mobility of citizens: if they were farming serfs, their children would also be farming serfs. The children of blacksmiths became blacksmiths, and the children of soldiers were recruited once they were of age.

Among many other changes, Diocletian made major reform of the Imperial Cult. Setting aside the prior century of practice, he replaced the Sun-centered Christianity (version 1) with a fundamentalist recreation of ancient Roman religion, honoring Zeus and Hercules. Opposition to his changes was predictable, but the change to the Imperial Cult upset folks in the eastern (Greek) half so much, that Constantine used the adoption of Christianity as leverage to gain the aid of the people and armies of the parts of Empire he didn’t already have control over.

But before I get ahead of myself, let’s be clear about Constantine’s position vis-a-vis Diocletian. Constantine had been trained in the court of Diocletian, and he learned his lessons well. Constantine’s dad had been one of the four co-emperors, and when he was passed over to become co-emperor after his father died, Constantine took control of his father’s legions and became a usurper against the established government of Diocletian’s Tetrarchy.

So when Constantine took up arms against Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge, the myth of receiving the specific blessing of the Christian God — referencing the prior chain of Caesars before Diocletian’s changes — positioned Constantine as the Savior and restorer of the Glory of Rome. He sent teams of spies into areas of the Empire held by the co-emperors to spread the Gospel of the second coming of Christ in Constantine. They carried with them a new book, the Revelations of St. John, that equated Diocletian’s changes to an apocalypse, and “predicted” Constantine’s arrival as the return of Christ to usher in a new Kingdom of Heaven.

Groups of people who gladly returned to the faith of their grandfathers became the Christians who were actually persecuted by the Zeus-worshiping Tetrarchy. The one time Christians really were persecuted by the Roman government, and it was because they were revolutionaries and spies. These Christians infuriated their captors by refusing to pay homage to their images of Zeus — they would only bow to images of Constantine, their returned Christ and Savior, their living god.

After Constantine had vanquished the last of the Tetrarchy, he needed to make sure that all of the officials of the eastern empire would go along with his leadership. So he summoned all of the Bishops of the eastern empire to congregate in the port town of Nicea for the first ecumenical conference of Christianity. There had been some trouble between the various of the wealthier cities regarding whom would rank highest in the new hierarchy, and part of the agenda was in resolving what was ostensibly a theological issue. In the end, the emperor forced an unworkable compromise on the topic, thinking himself very clever in how he resolved it. However, by bringing together the various bishops, he inadvertently created a political body more powerful than any senate before them: the College of Cardinals, which continues to rule over the Catholic Church.

This Christianity, version 2, was much the same as its predecessor. Instead of just the Gospels, the holy book for the new version of Christianity included the sacred scripture of the Jews, Epistles of the Apostles, and the Book of Revelation. A program of church building  was begun, the new Bible became part of the regular ritual, and Constantine became the new object of worship. Burial rites had become common at some point during the prior form of Christianity, so they continued here. There is also a specific nomenclature to distinguish this version of Christianity from the prior one: this one is “Trinitarian” Christianity. The prior one was “Arian” Christianity.

Even though Christianity was the official state religion, it was not yet the exclusive faith of the empire. Instead, it existed as one of dozens, if not hundreds, of simultaneously functioning cults available in every city in every province of the empire. It was the patriotic faith that everyone easily subscribed to, because everyone was a good Roman. But you still praised your ancestors and city heroes and local gods and trade gods and weather gods like you always had before. Christianity wasn’t expected to be all things to all people, just accepted by all people. And in general, it was — especially in the urban areas where the early churches were first built.

When Christianity became the exclusive faith of the empire, though, it transitioned once again into a new form.