Fourth Century Christianity – John M Robertson




In 303 C.E., Diocletian began what is often called the “Great” Persecution. This was the harshest and most widespread attack on Christians in the empire. Several edicts were issued by the four emperors controlling the western and eastern parts of the empire. Diocletian and Galerius in the eastern region were most vigorous in confiscating property and requiring that Christians sacrifice to the Roman gods. They also removed Christians and some others from the army. Constantius in Britain and Gaul was least vigorous in following through with the persecution but still confiscated some Church property. It is thought that Constantius had mem- bers of his household who were Christian and that this could have led him to be more tolerant.


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The public worship of the emperor was the one semblance of a centralised religious organisation which, like that of the Christian Church, existed throughout the empire. Precedented by old Egyptian and eastern usage, and by the practice of Alexander and his successors, it had first appeared in Rome in the offer of the cringing senate to deify Julius Cresar, and in the systematic measures of Augustus to have Julius worshipped as a God (divus), an honour promptly accorded to himself in turn. The apotheosis was signalised by giving the names of Julius and Augustus to the months Quintilis and Sextilis ; and only the final unpopularity of Tiberius prevented the substitution of his name in turn for that of September, an honour offered to and refused by him in his earlier life. Some of the madder emperors later tried to carry on the process of putting themselves in the calendar, but were duly disobeyed after death. Detested emperors, such as Tiberius and Nero and Domitian, were even refused the apotheosis but in general the title of divus was freely accorded: so abject had the general mind grown under autocracy; and 1t was usual in the provinces to worship the living emperor in a special temple in association with the Genius of Rome; while the cults of some emperors lasted long after their death. The common sense as well as the sense of humour of some rulers led them to make light of the institution ; and the jest of the dying Vespasian, “I fancy I am turning God,” is one of several imperial witticisms on the subject.

But it lay in the nature of autocracy, in Rome as in Egypt or in Incarian Peru, to employ sagaciously all methods of abasing the human spirit, so as to secure the safety of the throne. One of the most obvious means was to deify the emperor—a procedure as “natural” in that age as the deification of Jesus, and depending on the same psychological conditions. And though the person of the emperor was seldom quite safe from assassination by his soldiery, the imperial cult played its part from the first in establishing the fatal ideal of empire. No sequence of vileness or incompetence in the emperors, no impatience of the insecurity set up by the power of the army to make and unmake the autocrat, no experience of the danger of a war of claimants, ever seems to have made Romans dream of a saner and nobler system. Manhood had been brought too low.

Imperialism being thus an official religion in itself, the cult of the emperor lay to the hands of any magistrate who should be disposed to put a test to a member of the sect which decried all established customs and blasphemed all established Gods. It was the recognized way of imposing the oath of allegiance apart from any specific law. Where such a procedure was possible, any malicious pagan might bring about a stedfast Christian’s death. There is Christian testimony, however, that many frenzied believers brought martyrdom wilfully on themselves by outrages on pagan temples and sacred statues; and it is Tertullian who tells how Arrius Antoninus, pro-consul in Asia, drove from him a multitude of frantic fanatics seeking death, with the amazed demand to know whether they had not ropes and precipices. The official temper evidently varied, as did that of the Christians. In the period before Diocletian, save for the intrigues of pagan priests and provincial demagogues, and the normal suspicions of autocratic power, there was nothing in the nature of a general and official animosity, though the Christian attitude was always unconciliatory enough.

But by the beginning of the fourth century the developments on both sides had created a situation of strain and danger. The great effort of Diocletian to give new life to the vast organism of the empire, first by minute supervision, and then by sub-division under two emperors, called Augusti, and two Cæsars, wrought a certain seriousness of political interest throughout the bureaucracy; and the Christian body, long regarded with alternate contempt and dislike, had become so far organized and so considerable a force that none who broadly considered the prospects of the State could avoid reckoning with it.

At the same time paganism had taken on new guises: the Neo-Platonists, so-called, restated the ancient mythology and theology in forms which compared very well with the abstract teaching of the Church; and among the educated class there was some measure of religious zeal against Christians as blasphemers of other men’s Gods. It may or may not have needed the persuasion of his anti-Christian colleague, the Cæsar Galerius, to convince such a ruler as Diocletian that the Christian Church, a growing State within the State, still standing by an official doctrine of a speedy world’s-end, and rejecting the cult of the emperor, was an incongruous and dangerous element in the imperial scheme. It was in fact a clear source of political weakness, though not so deadly a one as the autocracy itself. To seek to suppress it, accordingly, was almost a natural outcome of Diocletian’s ideal of government. He had sought to give a new air of sanctity to the worship of the emperor by calling himself Jovius and his colleague Maximian Herculius; and to make the effort succeed it might well seem necessary to crush the one cult that directly stood in the way, alike as a creed and as an organization. The refusal of some Christian soldiers, too, to submit to certain commands which they considered unlawful gave Galerius a special pretext for strong measures.

It is not to be forgotten that the emperors and the bureaucracy had some excuse for a policy of suppression in the bitter strifes of the Christian sects and sections. Eusebius confesses that these were on the verge of actual warfare, bishop against bishop and party against party, each seeking for power; and for all it was a matter of course to accuse opponents of the worst malpractices. Some of the darkest charges brought by the pagans against Christians in general were but distributions of those brought by the orthodox against heretics, and by Montanists and others against the orthodox. A credulous pagan might well believe that all alike carried on vile midnight orgies, and deserved to be refused the right of meeting. It is not probable, however, that the two emperors and the persecuting Cæsar proceeded on any concern for private morals; and though Galerius was a zealous pagan with a fanatical mother, the motive of the persecution was essentially political. What happened was that the passions of the zealots among the pagans had now something like free scope; and, unless the record in Eusebius is sheer fable, the work was often done with horrible cruelty. On the other hand, there is Christian testimony to the humanity of many of the better pagans, who sheltered their Christian friends and relatives; and the Cæsar Constantius Chlorus, a tolerant pagan, who ruled in Gaul and Britain and Spain, gave only a formal effect to the edict of the emperors, destroying churches and sacred books, but sparing their owners. The fact, finally, that in ten years of persecution the number of victims throughout the eastern and central empire appears to have been within two thousand, goes to suggest that the mass of the Christians either bowed to the storm or eluded it. Bitter discussions, reviving some of the previous century, rose afterwards as to the proper treatment of the traditores, those who surrendered and forswore themselves; and the more zealous sects and churches either imposed long penances or refused to receive back the lapsed. As the latter course would only weaken themselves, the majority of the churches combined policy with penalty.

The time was now at hand when the Church, from being an object of aversion to the autocracy, was to become its instrument. Just before his death in 311, Galerius, who was little of a statesman, began to see what Diocletian would doubtless have admitted had he lived much longer, and what Constantius Chlorus had probably suggested to his colleagues, that the true policy for the government was to adopt instead of crushing the Christian organization. Only the original anticivism of the cult, probably, had prevented a much earlier adoption of this view by the more politic emperors. It was the insistence on the imminent end of the world, the preaching of celibacy, the disparagement of earthly dignitaries, the vehement assault on the standing cults of the State, no less than the refusal to sacrifice to the emperor’s statue, that had so long made Christism seem the natural enemy of all civil government. The more the Church grew in numbers and wealth, however, the more its bishops and priests tended to conform to the ordinary theory of public life; and as theirs was now the only organization of any kind that reached far throughout the State, save the State itself and the cult of the emperors, the latter must evidently either destroy it or adopt it. The great persecution, aiming at the former end, served only to show the futility of official persecution for such a purpose, since pagans themselves helped to screen staunch Christians, and the weaker had but to bow before the storm. Already Constantine, acting with a free hand on his father’s principles, had given complete tolerance to the Christians under his sway; and Maxentius, struggling with him for the mastery of the West, had done as much. Even in the East, Maximin had alternately persecuted and tolerated the Christians as he had need to press or pacify Galerius. The language used by Galerius, finally, in withdrawing the edict of persecution, suggests that besides recognizing its failure he had learned from his opponents to conceive the possibility of attaching to the autocracy a sect so much more widely organized and so much more zealous than any of the other subsisting popular religions, albeit still numbering only a fraction of the whole population.

To many of the Christians, on the other hand, long persecution had doubtless taught the wisdom of recanting the extremes of doctrine which had made even sceptical statesmen regard them as a danger to any State. It is clear that bishops like Eusebius of Cæsarea would readily promise to the government a loyal attention to its interests in the event of its tolerating and befriending the Church; and the sacred books offered texts for any line of public action. The empire, always menaced by barbarism on its frontiers, needed every force of union that could be used within; and here, finally adaptable to such use, was the one organization that acted or was fitted to act throughout the whole. To the leading churchmen, finally, association with the State was the more welcome because on the one hand general persecution would cease, and on the other all the party leaders could hope to be able by the State’s means to put down their opponents. A generation before, in the year 272, the Emperor Aurelian, on the express appeal of the party of bishops who had deposed Paul of Samosata, had intervened in that quarrel to give effect to the will of the majority, which otherwise could not have been put in force; and such occasions were sure to arise frequently. It needed only another innovating emperor to bring about the coalition thus prepared.


§ 2.Establishment and Creed-Making

On the abdication of the co-emperors Diocletian and Maximian, the Cæsars, Galerius and Constantius Chlorus, became the Augusti; the former, as senior, taking the East, and the latter the West. At once the plans of Diocletian began to miscarry; and Galerius, instead of raising to the Cæsarship, as the other had wished, Maxentius the son of Maximian and Constantine the already distinguished son of Constantius, gave the junior titles to his nephews Severus and Maximin. The speedy death of Constantius, however, secured the election of Constantine to the purple by his father’s troops in Britain; and there ensued the manifold strifes which ended in Constantine’s triumph. Maxentius, and his father, who returned to power, put down Severus; and Maximian gave his daughter as wife to Constantine, thus creating a state of things in which three emperors were leagued against a fourth and one Cæsar. Soon Maximian and Maxentius quarrelled, the father taking refuge first with Constantine and later with Galerius; who, however, proceeded to create yet another emperor, Licinius. Immediately the Cæsar Maximin revolted, and forced Galerius to make him Augustus also. The old Maximian in the meantime went to league himself afresh with Constantine, who, finding him treacherous, had him strangled. Soon after, Galerius dying (in 311), Maximin and Licinius joined forces; while Maxentius, who held Italy and Africa, professing to avenge his father, declared war on Constantine, who held Gaul. The result was the defeat and death of the former, leaving Constantine master of the whole West (312). In 314 he fell out with Licinius, who had in the meantime destroyed Maximin, and won from him Illyrium, Macedonia, and Greece. For ten years thereafter Constantine divided the empire with Licinius; then, quarrelling afresh with his rival, he captured and strangled him, and was sole autocrat (324).

Out of this desperate drama emerged Christianity as the specially favoured cult of the Roman empire. Constantine, we saw, had protected the Christians from the first, as his father had done before him; and Licinius had acquiesced in the same policy, though in his final war with Constantine he persecuted the Christians in order to attach pagans to his cause. There has been much discussion, nevertheless, as to whether Constantine turned Christian on political or on religious grounds. The fact seems to be that, in the ordinary spirit of ancient religion, he trusted to have the support of the God of the Christians in his great struggle with Maxentius, who appealed to the Gods of paganism with old and evil rites; and that after his first great success he became more and more confirmed in his choice. The story, however, of his having the labarum presented to him in a dream or a vision is an obvious fiction, possible only to the ignorance of the first Christian historians, who read the Greek letters Χρ (Chr)—though the tradition ran that the accompanying words, “In this sign conquer,” were in Latin—in a solar symbol that had appeared on Egyptian and other coins many centuries before, and had no reference whatever to the name of Christ, though Constantine used it for that on his standards. A similar tale is told of his son Constantius, on whose coins, however, the symbol is associated with the pagan Goddess of Victory. For the rest, Constantine was a Christian like another. His father had been a monotheist, who protected the Christians on philosophical principles; and from the constant success of Constantius in all his undertakings, as compared with the ill fortune of his own rivals, the son argued that the religion of “One God” was propitious to his house. His personal success in war was always his main argument for the Christian creed, and in such an age it was not the least convincing. The fact that he postponed his baptism till shortly before his death is not to be taken as necessarily indicating any religious hesitations on his part, though such hesitation may have been his motive. Multitudes of Christians in that age did the same thing, on the ground that baptism took away all sin, and that it was bad economy to receive it early. In his case such a reason was specially weighty, and there is no decisive reason to suppose that he had any other of a religious nature. Since, however, the pagans still greatly outnumbered the Christians, he could not afford to declare definitely against all other cults; and, beginning by decreeing toleration for all, he kept the pagan title of pontifex maximus, and continued through the greater part of his life to issue coins or medals on which he figured as the devotee of Apollo or Mars or Herakles or Mithra or Zeus.

While, however, he thus propitiated other Gods and worshippers, he gave the Christians from the first a unique financial support. Formerly, the clergy in general had been wont to supplement their monthly allowances by trading, farming, banking, by handicraft, and by practising as physicians; but the emperor now enacted that they should have regular annual allowances, and that the church’s widows and virgins should be similarly supported. Further, not only did he restore the possessions taken from believers during the persecution, he enacted that all their priests, like those of Egypt and of the later empire in general, should be exempt from municipal burdens; a step as much to their interest as it was to the injury of the State and of all public spirit. The instant effect was to draw to the priesthood multitudes of gain-seekers; the churches of Carthage and Constantinople soon had 500 priests apiece; and so strong were the protests of the municipalities against the financial disorder he had created that Constantine was [117]fain to restrict his decree. Certainly pagan flamens and public priests of the provinces, a restricted class, had had the same privilege, and this he maintained for them despite Christian appeals; nor does he seem to have withdrawn it from the priests and elders of the Jewish synagogues, who had also enjoyed it; but his direct gifts to the churches were considerable, and by permitting them to receive legacies in the manner of the pagan temples he established their financial basis. So great was their gain that laws had to be passed limiting the number of the clergy; and from this time forward laws were necessary to restrain priests and bishops from further enriching themselves by lending at interest.

Clerical power, however, was still further extended. Bishops, who had hitherto acted as arbitrators in Christian disputes, had their decisions legally enforced; and the important legal process of freeing slaves was transferred from the temples to the churches. Some pagan temples he temporarily suppressed, on moral grounds; some he allowed to be destroyed as no longer in use; but though he built and richly endowed several great Christian churches and passed some laws against pagan practices, he never ventured on the general persecution of pagans which his Christian hangers-on desired; and the assertions of Eusebius as to his having plundered the temples and brought paganism into contempt are among the many fictions—some of them perhaps later forgeries—in the works of that historian. As it was, Christian converts were sufficiently multiplied. Constantine’s severest measures were taken against private divination, the practisers of which he ordered to be burnt alive; but here he acted on the standing principles of pagan law, and doubtless under the usual autocratic fear of soothsaying against himself. The measure of course had no effect on popular practice. The emperors themselves usually consulted diviners before their own accession; and their veto on divination for other people was thus not impressive.

It is in his relations to his chosen church, code, and creed that Constantine figures at his worst. In the year after his victory over Licinius, when he was ostensibly a doubly convinced Christian, he put to death his son Crispus, a nephew, and his wife, Fausta; and he had strangled Licinius and his son after promising to preserve their lives; but not a word of censure came from the Christian clergy. At one stroke, their whole parade of superior morality was gone; and the Church thenceforth was to be in the main as zealous a sycophant of thrones as the priests of the past had ever been. Constantine lived without rebuke the ordinary life of autocrats; and by the admission of his episcopal panegyrist he was surrounded by worthless self-seekers, Christians all. Such as he was, however, Constantine was joyfully accepted as head of the Church on earth. His creation of the new capital, Constantinople, was regarded as the beginning of a new era, that of Christianity; since the upper classes of Rome were the most zealous devotees of the old Gods, and were said to have received Constantine on his last visit with open disrespect. Remaining pontifex maximus, he presided over the Œcumenical Council of the Church; and one of the abuses he established was to put the entire imperial postal service, with its relays of horses and chariots, at the service of the bishops travelling to attend them. For all his efforts he had the reward of seeing them quarrel more and more furiously over their central dogmas and over questions of discipline. Under his eyes there arose the great schism of Arius, and the schism of the Donatists in Africa, both destined to deepen and worsen for many generations. The failure of the Church as a means of moral union becomes obvious once for all as soon as the act of establishment has removed the only previous restraining force on Christian quarrels, fear of the pagan enemy. Clerical revenues being mostly local, schism was still no economic disadvantage to any sectary; and the Christian creed availed as little to overrule primary instincts of strife as to provide rational tests for opinion or action.

It would seem as if whatever mental impulse was left in men must needs run in the new channels opened up for ignorant energy by ecclesiasticism and theology in that world of deepening ignorance and waning civilization. Literature as such was vanishing; art was growing more impotent reign by reign; and the physical sciences, revived for a time in their refuge at [119]Alexandria by the Antonines and Flavians, were being lost from the hands of the living. To attribute the universal decadence to Christianity would be no less an error than the old falsism that it was a force of moral and civic regeneration: it was an effect rather than a cause of the general lapse. But, once established as part of the imperial machinery, it hastened every process of intellectual decay; and under such circumstances moral gain could not be. A doctrine of blind faith could not conceivably save a world sinking through sheer lack of light.

To Constantine, the endless strifes of the clergy over their creeds were as unintelligible as they were insoluble. Like the centurion of the gospel story, wont to command and to be obeyed, he looked for discipline in divine things; and as the theological feud became more and more embroiled he passed from uneasiness to a state between fear and rage. The Divinitas, he protested, would be turned against all, clergy and emperor and laity alike, if the clergy would not live at peace; and he quaintly besought them to leave points of theory alone, or else to imitate the pagan philosophers, who could debate without hatred. The ever-quarrelling Church was becoming a laughing-stock to the Pagans, being derided in the very theatres; and its new converts could be those only who went wherever there was chance of gain. So, in one of his rages, he decreed murderous punishment against intractable schismatics, only to find that the menace had multiplied the offence. Such as it was, however, the Church was an instrument of autocratic organization not to be dispensed with; and thus, at the stage at which its theological impulses, unchecked by sane moral feeling, would in the absence of persecution by the State have rent it in mutually destroying factions, the official protection of the State in turn came in to hold it together as a nominal unity. Thus and thus did the organism survive—by anything rather than moral vitality or intellectual virtue.

Leaving to the councils the settlement or unsettlement of dogmas, the emperor took upon himself, to the great satisfaction of the clergy, the whole external administration of the Church, assimilating it to his body politic. The four leading [120]bishoprics—Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople—were put on a level with the four prætorian prefectures; under them were ecclesiastical exarchs, corresponding to the thirteen civil exarchs of given territories or dioceses; and next came metropolitans or archbishops who superintended the single provinces, 116 in all. In the next century, the Bishop of Jerusalem, formerly subject to Antioch, became independent; and those five sees became known as the five Patriarchates. Numbers of churches still remained for various reasons technically independent; but the natural effect of the whole system was to throw all authority upwards, the bishops overriding the presbyters, and all seeking to limit the power of the congregations to interfere. As the latter would now include an increasing number of indifferentists, the development was the more easy. On the side of external ceremony, always the gist of the matter for the majority, as well as in myth and theory, Christianity had now assimilated nearly every pagan attraction: baptism, as aforesaid, was become a close copy of an initiation into pagan mysteries, being celebrated twice a year by night with a blaze of lights; and when Constantine enacted that the Day of the Sun should be treated as specially holy, he was merely bracketing together pagan and Christian theology, the two sanctions being equally involved. It was of course not a sacred day in the modern Puritan sense, being simply put on a level with the other great festival days of the State, on which no work was done, but play was free.


The Council of Nicaea

The council of Nicaea is the most important event of the fourth century, and its bloodless intellectual victory over a dangerous error is of far greater consequence to the progress of true civilization, than all the bloody victories of Constantine and his successors. It forms an epoch in the history of doctrine, summing up the results of all previous discussions on the deity of Christ and the incarnation, and at the same time regulating the further development of the Catholic orthodoxy for centuries. – Shaff, History of the Catholic Church

Nicaea was located on the eastern shore of Lake Ascania in a wide and fertile plain with plenty of natural resources. It was surrounded by a beautiful landscape and the Roman poet Catullus (Catul. 46.5) wrote that the nature of the region was inexhaustible and offered in abundance the finest fruits to anyone who cultivated the earth.


Council of Nicaea 325 – Date 1590 Source Author Fresco in Capella Sistina, Vatican


Letter of Emperor Constantine summoning the bishops from Ancyra to Nicaea

I believe it is obvious to everyone that there is nothing more honorable in my sight than the fear of God. Though it was formerly agreed that the synod of bishops should meet at Ancyra in Galatia, it seemed to us for many reasons that it would be well for the synod to assemble at Nicaea, a city of Bithynia, both because the Bishops from Italy and the rest of the countries of Europe are coming, and because of the excellent temperature of the air, and in order that I may be present as a spectator and participator in those things which will be done. Therefore I announce to you, my beloved brothers, that all of you promptly assemble at the said city, that is at Nicaea. Let every one of you therefore, as I said before, keep the greater good in mind and be diligent, without delay in anything, to come speedily, that each may be physically present as a spectator of those things which will be done.

God keep you my beloved brothers.

Translation from A New Eusebius, Ed. J. Stevenson (London: SPCK, 1963) no. 299, adapted by GLT

*in Church History things are not always so simple as we expect.[4] Even the full history of a General (i.e., world-wide) Council called in such circumstances, the first council of its kind–which had no precedents to guide its procedure, or to instruct the generality about the special value attaching to its decisions–even this would inevitably present difficulties to minds sixteen hundred years later; minds bred in a detailed, centuries-old tradition about the kind of thing General Councils are, and furnished with definite ideas about their nature, procedure, and authority. But we are very far from possessing anything like a full history of this first Council of Nicaea. Of any official record of the day-today proceedings–the acta of the council–there is no trace. – Mgsr Philip Huges


The history of this letter and its authenticity are discussed in Hanson, pp. 146-151


Robert M. Grant The Journal of Religion Vol. 55, No. 1 (Jan., 1975), pp. 1-12 (12 pages) Published By: The University of Chicago Press The Journal of Religion


It was in the year after his attainment of the sole power that Constantine summoned a General Council at his palace of Nicæa in Bithynia (325), to settle the theological status of the founder of the Church. The question had been ostensibly decided as against Paul of Samosata and the Sabellians (who made the Son a mere manifestation or aspect of the Father) by the dictum that they were different persons. That was for the time orthodox dogma. When, however, Arius, a presbyter of Alexandria, declared as against his bishop that “the Son is totally and essentially distinct from the Father,” the trouble began afresh. Arius found many adherents, who accused the bishop of Sabellianizing when he affirmed that the Son and the Father were of the same essence; and the Church saw itself once more driven to define its God. Bishop Alexander had Arius cast out of the Church by two Alexandrian Councils, with the effect of driving him to a more zealous propaganda, which succeeded as promptly and as widely as any previous heresy. Thereupon the Council of Nicæa, by a majority vote, enacted that the Son was of the same essence (homoousios) with the Father, yet a different person, and one-with yet born-of the Father; a creed to that effect was framed; Arius was sent into exile; and the leading bishops on his side were deposed. It was a mere snatch vote by a packed jury, since only some 300 bishops were present, whereas the Church contained at least 1,800; and five years afterwards Constantine, who on his own part had ordered that the writings of Arius should be burned, yet expressed himself as an ultra-Arian, became persuaded that the heresiarch had been ill-used, and recalled him from exile. Thereupon the restored Arian bishops began to persecute their persecutors; and Athanasius the new bishop of Alexandria having refused to reinstate Arius, he in turn was deprived of his office by the Council of Tyre (335) and banished to Gaul, other depositions following; while a large council held at Jerusalem formally restored the Arians; and the emperor commanded the bishop of Constantinople to receive the heresiarch. Before this could be done, however, Arius died at Constantinople (336), apparently by poison, and Constantine died the year after, baptized by an Arian bishop, leaving the two parties at grips for their long wrestle of hate. Within a few years, the emperor’s son Constans was threatening to make war on his brother Constantine if he did not reinstate Athanasius.

No more insane quarrel had ever convulsed any society. As an ecclesiastical historian has remarked, both parties believed in salvation through the blood of Jesus: on this primitive dogma, inherited from prehistoric barbarism, there was no dispute: and the battle was over the hopeful point of “assigning him that rank in the universe which properly belonged to him.” Orthodoxy would have it that the Son was Son from all eternity—exactly, once more, as devout Brahmans and Moslems have maintained that the Vedas and the Koran were “uncreated,” and existed from all eternity. Man’s instinct of reverence seems to lead mechanically to such conceptions in the absence of critical thought. But the thought, on the other side, which made Jesus a God born in time, and homoiousios (of similar essence) with the Father, was only relatively saner. Thus the Arians, rational in one aspect, took their stand on a fundamental irrationality; while the Trinitarians, as represented by Athanasius, found a sufficient substitute for argument in boundless vituperation. The fact that the Arians opposed monasticism and the ideal of perpetual virginity served to heighten orthodox resentment. The hatred was beyond all measure, and can be accounted for only by recognizing that a creed which appeals to emotion and degrades reason is potentially the worst stimulant of evil passions. On the intellectual side, if it can be said to have had one, the theory of the Trinity was a simple appropriation by Christianity of the conception of divine Triads which prevailed in the old Egyptian and other systems; and of which the Trinity of Osiris, Isis, and Horus was a well-known instance. Athanasius was but adding Christian passion to yet another pagan theorem, assimilated on Gnostic lines, with a new stress laid on the verbal affirmation of monotheism.

The one quasi-rational argument applicable to the case would be the non-moral one that the cult was visibly between the Scylla of polytheism and the Charybdis of a monotheism which reduced Jesus to mere manhood; and that if a nakedly self-contradictory formula could preserve it from collapse on either side such a formula should be enacted. Such an argument was of course not put forward, but probably it appealed to some of the shrewder and less honest bishops, who in the ensuing strifes would nevertheless adapt themselves to the political urgency of the moment. The State had happily created a species of official pale, within which the warring members remained nominally one church. Within that superficies the chaos became indescribable. The Arians in their turn broke up into half-a-dozen mutually anathematizing sects, each brandishing a creed; and every new phase of heresy evoked orthodox rejoinders which in turn were found to be heresies in the other direction. On the first series of strifes followed a second, as to the manner of the combination of the divine and human natures in Jesus; with yet a third, over the personality or modality of the Holy Ghost; till theology had become a kind of systematic insanity.

While Egypt and the East were thus embroiled, northern Africa, “orthodox” on the Trinity, was being given up to the schism of the Donatists, one of the many outbreaks of the Puritan or ascetic instinct there, where of old had flourished some of the most sensual worships. The quarrel began over the election of a bishop of Carthage, and the puritan side received its title from one or both of two bishops named Donatus. Council after council failed to compose the feud; and the emperor fared no better when he took from the schismatics some of their temples, banished some of their bishops, and put numbers to death. In the year 330 one of their councils numbered 270 bishops; and still the schism went on growing. Any sect, it was clear, might grow as the Jesuist sect itself had done. Alongside of the others now arose yet a new movement, named after its semi-legendary founder, Manichæus or Manes, a Persian, which combined in Gnostic fashion the Christian scheme and that of Mazdean dualism, identifying Jesus with Mithra; and this cult in turn, being carefully organized, spread fast and far, flourishing all the more because Manes was believed to have been put to death by the Persian king as a heretic to Mazdeism (? 275). It had a president, representing Christ; twelve masters, representing the twelve apostles; and seventy-two bishops, representing the seventy-two apostles of the third gospel or the seventy-two travelling collectors of the Jewish patriarchs. Like most of the earlier Gnostics the Manichæans were “Docetists,” holding that Jesus had only a seeming body and could not really suffer; and they not only denounced the Old Testament, calling Jehovah the Evil Spirit, but rejected the four gospels in favour of a new one, called Erteng, which Manes claimed to have been dictated to him by God. Improving on Montanus, he claimed, or was made to claim, to be the promised Paraclete; [124]thus beginning a new creed on all fours with the Christist. On the side of ethics the new cult extolled and professed all the ascetic virtues, and held by a theory of a twofold purgatory, one of sacred water in the moon, and one of sacred fire in the sun, which burned away the impure body, leaving an immortal spirit. Giving out its independent gospel, Manichæism had all the popular vitality of Montanism with the intellectual pretensions of Gnosticism. Nothing, it was clear, could hinder the creation of new sects out of or alongside the main body; and nothing but the most systematic and destructive persecution could prevent their separate continuance while zeal subsisted.

Under the family of Constantine his creed and his policy were maintained, with no better fruits under either the personal or the political aspect. To his three sons—Constantine II, Constantius, and Constans—with two of his nephews, he left the empire; but immediately the nephews were massacred with their fathers; of the three sons the second destroyed the first in war (340); and the third, succeeding to the western provinces of the first, fell in war with a new competitor, Magnentius (350); whereafter Constantius, defeating the latter by deputy, became sole emperor (353–361). To him appears to be chargeable the deliberate assassination at one stroke of the two surviving brothers of his father and all their sons save two, Gallus and Julian, the sons of Julius Constans; and at his hands began at least the theoretical persecution of paganism on the eager pressure of the church which forty years before had been persecuted. It thus remains matter of history that while many pagans had been in favour of tolerance before the establishment of Christianity, the Christians, who had naturally condemned all persecution while they suffered from it, were ready to become zealous persecutors as soon as they had the power. The treatise of Julius Firmicus Maternus on pagan errors is an eager appeal to the sons of Constantine to destroy all pagan worships. In point of fact, pagans were not the first to suffer. Excommunications, banishments, and executions of schismatics had been among the first fruits of Constantine’s headship; and though for a time many recoiled from putting to death their heretical fellow-Christians, within a century that scruple too had disappeared. Thus again was “the Church” enabled to survive.

Christian persecution of paganism, on the other hand, did not take effect as promptly as its instigators would seem to have wished. In 341, Constans made an absurd law that “superstition should cease, and the madness of sacrifices be abolished,” on pain of death to all who persisted. No official action seems to have been taken under this decree; and next year, being doubtless forced to respect the pagan party, he enacted that though superstition must be suppressed the old temples should be spared. In 353, Constantius in turn appears from the Theodosian Code to have decreed that all temples throughout the empire should be closed; that all who resorted to them or offered sacrifice should be put to death, and their property confiscated; and that governors who did not enforce the law should themselves be so punished. In the same year he ostensibly struck at nocturnal pagan rites at Rome, where Christian rites had so long been nocturnal. Three years later, when Julian had become Cæsar under him, he framed a law, signed by both, which in a few words reaffirms the death penalty on all who sacrificed, or worshipped idols—this when some Christians were already worshipping idols in their churches. As there is no trace whatever of any official action being taken under these laws, and as there is abundant monumental proof that at least in the western empire and in Egypt the pagan worships were carried on freely as before, we are forced to conclude that the edicts, if really penned, were never given out by Constantius. It remains on record that he, keeping the pagan title of pontifex maximus, passed stringent laws, as Constans had done, against all who desecrated pagan tombs; and further that he went on paying the stipends of flamens, augurs, and vestals—personages usually of high rank. It appears that in fact the autocrat could not or dared not yet enforce his laws against the pagan worships. In the East in general, however, and even in Italy, wherever temples were unfrequented and ill defended they were liable to shameless plunder or destruction by Christians, who were safe from punishment.

On the other hand, Constantius multiplied the financial privileges of Christians, giving higher stipends to the clergy and doles of corn to the congregations. He maintained, too, an enormous retinue of vicious Christian parasites, the whole process worsening the already desperate public burdens, and straining to the utmost a financial system approaching the point of collapse. As head of the Church, he presided at Councils; and as a semi-Arian he encouraged Arianism and persecuted Athanasianism, the orthodox not daring openly to gainsay him. As little did either party condemn him when he brutally murdered the young Gallus, the Christian brother of Julian, leaving only the latter alive of all Constantine’s house. To the bishops assembled in council he announced that his will was as good as a canon; and he forbade them to condemn opinions which he held. One bishop he caused to be tortured; others to be banished; one he put to death; and he would doubtless have slain Athanasius had not that great agitator been so well concealed by the monks of Egypt. Under the emperor’s pressure the council of Rimini declared for Arianism; and for himself he framed the new title “His Eternity,” calling himself the lord of the universe. Only the favour of the empress, and the emperor’s own fears, saved Julian from his brother’s fate, as his death seems to have been planned.

The Church was worthy of its head. “At each episcopal election or expulsion,” says an orthodox writer, “the most exalted sees of Christendom—Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch—furnished scenes that would have disgraced a revolution.” Julian has told how whole troops of those who were called heretics were massacred, notably at Cyzicus and at Samosata; while in Paphlagonia, Bithynia, Galatia, and many other provinces, towns and villages were utterly destroyed. In one massacre at Constantinople, the second in connection with the forcible re-instalment of the semi-Arian bishop Macedonius (342), there perished more than three thousand people—considerably more than had suffered death in the whole ten years of the last pagan persecution. The orthodox populace, divided in furious factions, fighting like savages in their very churches, were as brutal as their masters; and no priesthood was ever more powerless for good than the Christian [127]clergy in face of these horrors. Gregory of Nazianzun, whose own ferocities of utterance illustrate the character of the period, declared truly that he had never seen a synod do aught but worsen a quarrel. Such was Christianity under the first Christian-bred emperor. And if Tiridates of Armenia (conv. 302) be taken as the first Christian king, the beginnings of State Christianity are not greatly improved, since there the new faith was spread by fire and sword, and the old persecuted unremittingly for a hundred years, during which time raged many wars of religion between Armenia and Persia. The new faith had “come not to bring peace.”