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Ancient Rome: the State against Free Belief

By Edited Mar 17, 2016 0 0

The Ecclesial Chisel

“If a kingdom be against itself divided, that kingdom cannot stand.” – Mark 3:24

The fall of the Western Roman Empire in AD476 is regarded as one of the most significant turning points in western civilisation, if not the whole of human history. In his Gospel, St Mark advocates that if a nation is to stand, then it must do so as an undivided whole. Michael Grant, broadly recognized as an authoritative source on Roman history, corroborates this view in his “Fall of the Roman Empire” by exploring thirteen reasons for the collapse of the empire, all of which are pervaded by a universal theme of disunity. One such reason discussed by Grant is the conflict between the state and free belief, brought about by a combination of Christianity’s ascetic monasticism, dogmatic intolerance and struggle with the state for superiority. Whilst this topic appears synonymous with ‘the state vs. Christianity’, the state itself became Christian under the reign of Constantine. Nevertheless, the ascetic monasticism of Christianity was one factor which amplified the conflict between the state and free belief.

The monastic tradition grew rapidly within the Christian community both before and after the state’s conversion to Christianity due to a combination of apocalyptic eschatology, divine encouragement and increasing hardship in regular life. Michael Grant indicates that “the original belief among Christians that the saviour would immediately come again caused them to think of their earthly lives as transient” (Grant, 1960, p208). Grant’s works are widely acknowledged by the academic community, validating them as among the most reliable secondary sources. Furthermore, the Christian prayer that God’s “will be done on earth as it is in heaven” corroborates Grant’s view that Christianity’s faith in the imminent arrival of the apocalypse rendered the events of life inconsequential. Curiously, it was this same mentality upon which St Augustine drew in his City of God when trying to reconcile god and war:

“It is true that in the civitas terrena, pagan Rome had prospered and the history of the Christian empire had been calamitous. But what did the things of this world matter in comparison with the spiritual word, the civitas Dei? To the Christian earthly disasters were indifferent, they were even to be welcomed as sent by god to discipline and purify the faithful. This world is only a vale of tears; the true blessedness is to be found in the life of the spirit here on earth, and in all its fullness in the world to come.” (St Augustine in Kagan, 1966, p420)

Along with this disregard for earthly life, Christianity encouraged reclusion to a more pure and spiritual life, along with “chastity, continence and where possible life-long virginity” (Ferguson, 1998, p11). Additionally, as the frontier regions were put under increasing pressure, particularly by the Germanic barbarians in the north, the tax burden placed upon roman citizens to maintain the army grew ever heavier. Combined, these factors “led thousands of people to retreat from the demands of earthly and family life, including hundreds of the best-educated and wealthy individuals” (Ferguson, 1998, p12).

In spite of its best efforts, the state only succeeded in augmenting this monastic exodus. Some ascetic ideas can be traced back to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, a work which is pervaded by metaphysical and rhetorical tone:

“Keep an untroubled spirit; for all things must bow to Nature’s law, and soon enough you must vanish into nothingness, like Hadrian and Augustus…look things in the face and know them for what they are, from where they came, and to where they will go, remembering that it is your duty to be a good and humble man.”  (Marcus Aurelius Meditations VIII.5 in Scarre 1995, p. 118)

Michael Grant speaks of Marcus Aurelius in the words of Plato, who wrote that only when “a philosopher became a king or a king became a philosopher that the sufferings of mankind would end” (Grant, 1978, p229). However, those who were steered in the direction of an ascetic lifestyle by the viewpoint expressed by Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations would have been of the upper classes, as they comprised the portion of the population who were educated and could read. Furthermore, ascetism was enlarged by Constantine’s enthronement of the church. Before Constantine, “the deaths of a many eminent martyrs had been recorded with care,” and the martyr spirit was strong (Gibbon in Kagan, 1966, Page 366). When the state endorsed the church, and martyrdom became improbable, there were those who rejected the social context to live a quiet life of asceticism and dedication to god, which was seen as another form of martyrdom.

Needless to say, the state disapproved of these attitudes on economic, military, and political grounds. In the sphere of economics, the state was concerned that too many people choosing lives of monasticism and celibacy would cripple the population such that it would be unable to provide the tax revenue and manpower necessary to maintain the army.  Politically, the state was concerned that Christian loyalty was drifting elsewhere. In his letter to the emperor Trajan, Pliny the Younger gives evidence that this was the case by writing, when asking for advice on persecuting early Christians, that “Some, I find to be Romans, others to be Christians” (Pliny in Kagan, 1966, p363). This suggests that patriotism and paganism were closely linked, a connection that was not lost on Polybius when he wrote “I believe that what maintains the cohesion of the roman state is…the nature of their religious devotion” (Polybius in Grant, 1960, p177). Although Polybius wrote to advertise Rome’s virtues to the Greek people, his opinion is supported by Grant, who further depicts the disunity between the state and the Christians by indicating that “there was a very powerful opposition between Christianity and the religion of the state” (Grant, 1960, p207). As St Augustine, Pliny and Polybius are echoed by both Grant and Gibbon, it is clear that the retreat to a life of ascetic monasticism was one way in which disunity was created between the state and free belief.

Before continuing, it would be wise to assess the validity and impartiality of both Gibbon’s and Augustine’s works, as they are the foremost primary and secondary source on the matter of the state against free belief. Augustine was one of the ecclesiasts who took the lead in supressing secular leaders. He was not a pacifist, claiming that “Christ, like a general, must use military means to recall deserters to his army” (Augustine in Grant, 1993, p347). It is possible that this fierce Christian devotion may have influenced his work. This premise is supported by the fact that Augustine laced the 22 volumes of his “City of God” with an insidious means of undermining the authority of the government. Augustine belittled Rome, depreciating the value of life one earth by comparing it with eternal life in heaven. This proposes that Augustine was against the Roman State becoming Christian. Michael Grant suggests that this may be the case, writing that “Indeed, toward the end of his life, Augustine’s distain for the identification between Christianity and the empire grew substantially” (Augustine in Grant, 1978, p351). Regrettably, this refusal to believe in a Christian empire spread, and contributed to the internal deterioration of the Roman Empire.

On the other hand, Gibbon expresses quite a different prejudice in his “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, which has become the standard against which all other works of such a nature are compared. This collective acceptance from the classical academic community gives Gibbon’s views a great degree of credibility. However, there is one criticism which is recurringly made of Gibbon’s work; that it suffers from bias against Christianity.  Although it would seem that Gibbon had a distastes toward religion in general, illustrated by his sentiment that "the various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosophers as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful", there is also a strong case which suggests that Gibbon’s work is pervaded by a specific dislike for Christianity (Gibbon in Kagan, 1966, p367).

A good example of this bias is Gibbon’s response to the historian Ammianus Marcellinus’ claim that “no wild beasts are such enemies to mankind as are most of the Christians in the deadly hatred they feel for others” (Ammianus in Grant, 1978, p347). When critiquing Ammianus, Gibbon used the exact words; “Ammianus is an accurate and faithful guide, who composed the history of his own times without indulging the prejudices and passions which usually affect the mind of a contemporary” (Gibbon in Kagan, 1966, p.367). This approval possibly stems from a mistrust of Christianity common to the work of both historians, corroborating the premise that Gibbon is anti-Christian. 

Speaking of the ‘deadly hatred’ which Christianity extended toward pagans, another factor which widened the gap between the state and free belief was Christianity’s dogmatic intolerance “of which the roman world had hitherto been free” (Grant, 1978, p344). Gibbon portrays the unyielding and narrow vision of monotheism by writing that “the Christians, claiming the possession of divine knowledge, disdained every form of worship, except their own, as impious and idolatrous” (Gibbon in Kagan, 1966, p367). Whilst an anti-Christian tone pervades his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon’s assessment of the early church is reflected in Pope Leo I’s statement that “Truth, which is simple and one, does not admit of variety” (Pope Leo I in Grant, 1978, p348).

However, the Christians had no means to assert their dogmatic doctrine until Constantine converted the empire to Christianity in AD312 after his victory at the Milvian Bridge. This was described by the early twentieth century historian J.B. Bury as “perhaps the most audacious act ever committed by an autocrat in disregard and defiance of the vast majority of his subjects”, proposing the possibility that converting the empire may have alienated a significant number of roman pagans, expanding the breach between the state and free belief (Bury in Kagan, 1966, p289). Furthermore, this highlights that once the state itself had become Christian, the conflict became one between Christians and pagans. The outcome of Christianity assuming a new authority in the empire is described by Grant; “The Manichaeans and Jews fared much worse under the Christian emperors than under their pagan predecessors” (Grant, 1978, p348). This event is elaborated upon by Gibbon, who writes; “from the time that Christianity was invested with the supreme power, the governors of the church were no less diligently employed in displaying cruelty, than in imitating the conduct of their pagan adversaries” (Gibbon in Kagan, 1966, p366). Here Gibbon puts an emphasis on the pagans as the adversaries of the state, an outlook again shared by Grant.

“The men who originated the idea, of which the Greco-Roman world had hitherto been free, that people should be coerced because of their opinions, bear a heavy load of responsibility for the persecutions that followed…And meanwhile, these coercions had helped to destroy the Roman Empire, by intensifying the very disunities they were designed to eliminate” (Grant, 1960, p174).

As Christianity admits no variance, this again highlights how the intensifying trend to punish pagans was made possible through the close alliance formed by Constantine between the church and the state. The resulting persecutions deepened the ever present rifts, further denying the roman world the unity which it so desperately needed. This substantiates the notion that the dogmatic intolerance of Christianity triggered disunity between the state and free belief.

In addition to the coercion of the pagans, the vehement beliefs of the church led to a power struggle between sacred and secular leaders. When Constantine installed the church to its position of power within the empire, the state was still the dominant force. Having just unified the empire under his sole rule, it is probable that Constantine had “hoped Christianity, and the image of a Redeemer, would bring together all grievous internal disharmonies; that the Church and State would work together in close association” (Ferguson, 1998, p8). This was indeed the initial effect of the conversion, articulated by the emperor Valentinian who stated that “the State is not in the Church, but the Church is in the State” (Valentinian in Grant, 1978, p342). However, after the death of Valentinian I in AD375, Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, elevated the power of the church during the reigns of Valentinian II and Theodosius I, the latter made to repent on two occasions. Moreover, Bishop Severus of Antioch ordered the Jews to be attacked for having caused the death of Jesus, claiming that “the whole community should be penalized for participating in that sin” (Severus in Matyszak 2004, p261). This created an atmosphere of hostility between the Christians and the Jews, adding another layer of disunity which in turn weakened the Western Roman Empire.

Eventually, Ambrose undoubtedly announced the superiority of the church above the state, declaring that “the Emperor is not above the Church, but in the Church, when one reads the scriptures, one sees that it is bishops who judge Emperors” (Ambrose in Matyszak, 2004, p2612). Under the reign of Theodosius I, citizenship and Christianity became synonymous in a way that religion and the state had not been since Polybius observed it in the later days of the republic. The idea that the church was above the state is extended by St Augustine in The City of God, where he explores the fact that God had protected the Christians where the state had not protected the Romans.

And now these wretches do not thank God for his great mercy . . . that he should decree if Rome were to be taken, it should be by barbarians who, despite the practice of all wars that have gone before, protected, through the respect for Christianity, everyone who sought refuge in sacred places. These barbarians were very much opposed to demons and the rites of impious sacrifices, so they appeared to be conducting war with them which was much more terrible than their war with men. So the true Lord and ruler of all scourged the Romans mercifully . . . (St. Augustine in Matyszak 2004, p268)

When the Goths sacked Rome in 410AD, they mainly took removable wealth and, as they were Christians, limited their violence, in particular respecting the churches and those who had found sanctuary in them (Ferguson, 1998, p13). According to St Augustine, this event juxtaposed the incompetence of the roman state with the comparative safety of the church. This is as fine a paradigm as any of the struggle for superiority which occurred between the state and the church, which, along with the animosity among the Jews and Christians, contributed to the conflict between the state and free belief.

Both as the state and against it, free belief made a substantial contribution to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire. In his Gospel, St Mark reflects this idea by declaring that “if a kingdom be against itself divided, then that kingdom cannot stand”. Many modern historians, such as Michael Grant, J. B. Bury, Ferguson and Edward Gibbon have adopted this notion of disunity in an attempt to understand the various causes of the Roman Empire’s collapse. One such reason is the conflict between the state and free belief, catalysed by Christianity’s ascetic monasticism, dogmatic intolerance and struggle with the state for superiority.

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