to syllabus

Lecture 7:  The Roman Empire and Christianity

 The Roman Empire in Crisis (180-284 CE) 

When in 180 CE Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius died, he bequeathed power to his son Commodius.  Commodius then found himself caught between the two competing poles of political power in Imperial Rome—the Senate and the Army.   Unable to control either, Commodius drifted into a pattern of bazaar behavior, which included arbitrary executions of Senators, military commanders, and other public figures.  In 192 CE he was murdered by one of his own servants, and Rome fell back into the familiar pattern of civil war between the factions of competing Generals.  In 193 CE, a general from one of Rome's provinces seized power, Septimus Severus. 

Severus and his successors (the Severans ruled until 235 CE) were basically military dictators:  they severely weakened the rights of the Senate and put the army at the center of Roman political life, even using the military directly against their potential opponents.  In 235 CE the army turned against the Severans and murdered Emperor Severus Alexander and his wife.  Yet again, Rome fell into civil war, with general after general seizing power and then being ousted by yet another military coup.  Political chaos gripped the empire until 284 CE. 

Not only was the empire in a state of political chaos, but the economic crisis that had been festering for centuries finally erupted to the surface.  Constant war, civil war, and the cost of appeasing the army had drained the imperial coffers.  Emperor after emperor had raised taxes and issued devalued the currency (with lower percentages of silver and gold), which contributed to a downward economic spiral.  By the mid-200s, war had severed important trade ties; moreover, the countryside was in ruin and agricultural production had declined severely.   Food shortages contributed to the spread of epidemic diseases, which (along with deaths from warfare) helped depopulate the Roman countryside.  Rome's cities then experienced almost two decades of plagues (mid-200s). 

These new blows would not have been so very crippling were it not for the fundamental weakness of Rome's economy—its dependence on slave labor.  Once Rome's external expansion slowed (around 100 CE), it no longer had an inexhaustible supply of slaves.  Rather than concentrate on technical means of improving agriculture, Roman landowners worked their dwindling slave labor force more intensively.  This contributed to low birth rates among slaves, which were also probably at least in part the result of slaves' deliberate decision not to produce more children to serve their Roman masters.   

The hunger and plagues of the 200s hit the rural slave population hardest, further depleting the slave labor force.  Between 180 CE and 280 CE, Rome's population probably declined by at least 30 percent.  And so by the 200s CE Rome faced a severe shortage of agricultural labor, which was probably the single most important cause of declining agricultural productivity.  The economic crisis had relatively little impact on the lives of Rome's wealthy aristocrats, but it meant enormous suffering for ordinary Romans.  

One of the other important pressures contributing to Rome's crisis was the threat of foreign invasion.  In the 200s CE Rome's armies were far weaker than they had been a century earlier—the combination of a falling population and decades of bloody civil war had seen to that.  The Persians began carving away at Rome's territories in the East (even capturing and killing one Roman emperor, Valerian, in 260 CE); in the North, Germanic tribes like the Goths began moving against Roman territory.  

Rome's pattern of authoritarian, militaristic rule had weakened it politically, its reliance on slave labor had weakened it economically, and its expansionism had created a backlash that weakened its security.  By the late 200s CE Rome was in serious decline, although its self-satisfied, luxury-loving elites seemed to take little notice. 

Diocletian and Constantine:  Moving Rome to the East 

In 284 CE a general named Diocletian seized power in Rome and instituted important administrative and economic reforms.  While helping to stabilize the empire and stave off collapse for a time, Diocletian's reforms further emphasized the state's power over its subjects.  He also initiated a shift in the geographic center of Roman power to the East—a process that would be completed by Emperor Constantine.. 

Perhaps the most important of Diocletian's immediate reforms was division of military and civilian administrative spheres, which removed army generals from most matters of domestic government.  He also sought to improve the efficiency of administration by dividing the empire into two main territorial districts (East, under his personal rule, and West, under the rule of his protégé Maximian).  To further improve administration and to reduce the likelihood of future succession crises (and civil wars), Diocletian subdivided both the Eastern and Western Empire into four provinces, each administered by a governor; when an emperor died, one of the four governors would take his place.  This last reform, however, lasted no longer than Diocletian's reign. 

While addressing the administrative chaos into which Rome had fallen, Diocletian also sought to shore up the empire's economy.  First, he acted to ensure that funds again flowed into the imperial coffers by reforming the tax collection system. The new system did bring in higher tax revenues (at the expense of poor Romans), but also inflated the bureaucracy devoted to tax collection.  Some of Diocletian's economic reforms proved relatively successful; he halted the devaluation of currency.  But his effort to set fixed prices for food and other necessities and to dictate fixed wage levels failed.  The most important Diocletian economic reform halted the movement of free agricultural laborers and tied them to the land on which they worked.  While addressing the Roman economy's most basic weaknesses, the labor shortage, this did little to change Rome's reliance on un-free labor; instead, it slowly moved Rome towards a new form of un-free labor, serfdom. 

Diocletian is said to have "orientalized" the Roman Empire (meaning to make it more "Eastern").  We can compare Diocletian's steps to those of Alexander the Great some 500 years earlier.  Like Alexander, Diocletian literally moved his capital to the East, in this case from Rome to Nicomedia in Roman Asia (Turkey).  This made sense in practical terms, since the Eastern portions of the Empire had proven a greater source of wealth than its European lands.  Like Alexander the Great, Diocletian's style of rule echoed that of Persian emperors (e.g., rather than being Rome's "first citizen," he was Rome's "lord"; he now dressed in Persian royal clothing; and his court followed Persian rituals).  As in Persia, Diocletian's administrative policies bred a large and complex bureaucracy (each subdivision of territory and of function required a new level of bureaucracy). 

Diocletian and Maximian both retired in 305 CE, and were replaced by two regional governors according to Diocletian's reforms.  But within months the other six regional governors claimed the right to the imperial thrones.  Another civil war broke out, which ended only with the military victory of Constantine seven years later, in 312 CE.  (Constantine was son of the governor who had assumed power in the Western Empire under Diocletian's plan).  Constantine ruled only the Western Empire until 324 CE, but he then used military force to take power over the Eastern Empire as well, reuniting all Rome's territory.   

Constantine is best remembered for adopting Christianity, but he also made a number of other important changes that require our attention.  First, he restored the idea of hereditary kingship in Rome.  Remember, the Romans had thrown off hereditary dynastic kingship in 500 BCE; Augustus Caesar, et al., had legitimated their rule on the basis of Rome's unwritten constitution and approval of the Senate (even when the Senate was just a "rubber stamp").  Constantine, however, viewed kingship as "patrimonial rule"—he believed that the empire, its lands, and its peoples were his own personal property. 

In keeping with this new, inflated ideal of patrimonial kingship, in 330 CE Constantine moved the imperial capital to a new city that he had built on the border between East and West, which he named after himself—Constantinople.  (Today this city is called Istanbul, in Turkey.)   Constantinople's location had great strategic advantages over that of the city of Rome:  it gave the emperor easier access to both the East and the West (Asia and Europe), and it was an extremely defendable position (on high land with water on 3 sides, good lines of sight in all directions, etc.).  The Empire's culture now became even more sharply divided between the "Latin" West and the "Greek" East. 

Under Constantine and his successors in the 300s CE, the Imperial bureaucracy grew ever larger and corrupt.  A new kind of elite joined the old aristocratic and equestrian families—the wealthy bureaucrat.  The gap between rich and poor, which had been growing in Rome for centuries, reached unprecedented extreme levels.  That was because as the slave labor population dwindled, the state had done all it could to reduce the legal status of "free" laborers, so as tie them to the land of the wealthy (providing the rich with a fixed "non-slave" labor force).  High taxes and laws restricting free movement weighed heavily on the poor.   

As Coffin points out, it is not surprising that in this time of great social misery, the poor turned for comfort to a new religion that promised them salvation and happiness after death:  Christianity.  Ironically, Constantine, whose policies contributed mightily to the hardships of the poor, himself converted to Christianity in 312 CE.  We will return to the topic of the Christianization of Roman society in bit later.  First, however, we will turn to the question of Rome's relations with the Germanic tribes of Northern Europe. 

The Germanic Invasions and the Collapse of the Western Empire (378-476 CE) 

Rome faced serious internal problems in the 300s, but it also struggled to control its vast empire. The Germanic tribes that had risen against Rome in the 200s began to pose a serious threat in the late 300s. 

The Germanic tribes were made up of Indo-European speaking agrarian peoples.  They had been under the influence of Rome and had been borrowing from its culture for some two hundred years.  In the 300s, the relationship between Rome and the Germanic tribes became increasingly complicated.  Rome depended upon the Germans to serve in Rome's army and it had encouraged the Germans to settle and farm unused lands on the empire's borders in Central Europe.  But the Germanic tribes (the Visigoths, the Vandals, the Lombards, the Goths, the Ostrogoths, the Franks, etc.) resented Roman rule and coveted rich Roman-controlled agricultural regions.   

Moreover, the Visigoths, whom the Romans had encouraged to settle along the Danube River in Central Europe, found themselves under attack by nomadic raiders from East Asia, the Huns (around 350).  In response, the Visigoths had moved into Roman territory near the mouth of the Danube (in present day Bulgaria).  But their Roman overlords treated them horribly; officials from Constantinople demanded illegal tribute from Visigoths and took their children as slaves, raped the women, and tortured the men when the Visigoths refused to pay.  In 378, roughly 50,000 Visigoths (including women and children) rebelled against Rome's brutality.  They defeated an army sent from Constantinople.  Then, rather than turn against the capital of the Eastern Empire, they moved through Greece and along the Adriatic Sea towards Italy.  Not only did the Western Empire offer more farm land for the Germans, but it also presented an easier target.  Economic crisis and depopulation had made its cities weak, and the under-manned and de-moralized western Roman armies put up little resistance.  In 410 the Visigoths attacked and plundered the city of Rome itself.  They then seized control over the rich farm lands of southern Gaul (the south of France). 

The Visigoth's victories revealed Rome's weakness, and other Germanic tribes quickly moved to take advantage.  The Vandals (who including women and children numbered about 80,000) invaded Rome's territories in Gaul, as did the Franks, Alamans, Burgundians, and several other tribes.  Again, these tribes had been displaced from their homelands by the invading Huns.  Again, the Roman Army put up little resistance.  The Vandals moved into Spain and from Spain into North Africa, where they seized control over the rich farm lands of Roman Numidia (present day Tunisia) in 439.  In 455 the Vandals attacked and plundered Rome from the sea.  Then in 476 CE an army of Huns and Ostrogoths again attacked Rome.  This time, though, the invaders stayed and seized power over Italy.  The Ostrogoth leader Theodoric declared himself King of Rome. 

Western Europe, on which Rome had imposed political unity through imperial force, now became a patchwork of Germanic kingdoms.  By the end of the 400s the Ostrogoths ruled most of Italy except for the north-east, which was under the control of the Lombards; the Vandals ruled the former Roman province of Africa; the Visigoths ruled what had been Roman Spain and south-eastern Gaul; the Franks (led by their king Clovis, who had converted to Christianity) ruled the west and center of "Roman" Gaul; the Burgundians ruled south-eastern Gaul; and Anglo-Saxons ruled the island of Britain.   

Some elements of Roman culture declined rapidly under Germanic rule.  The Germans were farming people with relatively little interest in urban trade, and so the economic decline and depopulation of cities in the West accelerated.  So did the decay of the western bureaucracy.  But German rule did not mean the end of Roman culture in the West:  the Germans admired Roman culture, adopted Latin as their language of state, and converted to the Christian faith.  

This brings us back to the issue of Christianity and the relationship between Rome and the Church.  But before we can discuss the importance of Roman state support for Christianity, we first need to go back three hundred years and look at the origins of this new religion.

The Origins and Early Growth of Christianity           

First, we need to look back to the lecture on the Hebrews:  after the re-establishment of the Hebrew state and the building of the Second Temple (516 BCE), monotheists dominated Jewish religious thought.  But debates over theological doctrine continued.  The dominant faction, the temple priests and their allies, became known as the Sadducees.   But other Jewish theologians challenged the Sadducees' reading God's law.  The Sadducees stressed that all Jews must follow the Ten Commandments, but that most of the other Mosaic laws applied only to the priests.  Their main opponents, the Pharisees, argued that all Jews must live according to all of the 613 laws laid out in the Five Books of Moses.  The Pharisees also argued that God wanted man to follow both the "written Torah" (the laws recorded in the Five Books of Moses) and the "oral Torah"—the unwritten teachings Moses passed on to his followers and that had been passed for generations from teacher to student.  They preached that the Messiah (the "deliverer" mentioned by the Prophets) would soon come and that the Day of Judgment was near.

Among the many sects in Judaism by the 100s BCE were the Essenes.  Some scholars argue that Jesus' cousin John the Bapitist belonged to the Esssene sect.  The Essenes argued it was not enough to follow God's laws; to ensure salvation, one had to repent one's sins, withdraw from worldly life and devote one's self entirely to God. 

Although these factional divisions had been growing for generations, it was the Roman conquest of Judea by Julius Caesar that set the immediate context for Christianity.  Rome appointed a king (Herod) to rule Judea under the oversight of a Roman governor (Pontius Pilate).  Rome also appointed the high Temple priesthood.  The temple priesthood and elements of the aristocracy cooperated with the Romans, but Hebrews as a whole resented Roman rule.  Political radicals called the Zealots called for an anti-Roman uprising, while various religious factions within Jewish life criticized the Sadducees as collaborators and preached that God would send the Messiah to free the Jews of foreign (pagan) rule. 

[Note:  the Jews did rise up in rebellion against Rome in 69-70 CE and again in 132-135 CE.  The Romans crushed both uprisings brutally, in the first case destroying the Second Temple, and in the second case expelling the Jews from Jerusalem.]

There were many preachers in Judea at this time who claimed to be the Messiah.  These included Jesus of Nazareth.  There is no historical evidence regarding Jesus' life other than the four Gospels, the earliest of which (the Gospel according to Mark) was written down at least 30 years after the death of Jesus.  What seems certain is that Jesus was born between 3 BCE and 3 CE into the family of a Jewish carpenter.  At about 30 years old he became a teacher-preacher in the tradition of the Pharisees.  In his three years of intenerate preaching he emphasized many themes common to Jewish reformers of that era:  the importance of forgiveness, of embracing good, of "turning the other cheek" to evil and loving one's enemies, and of treating others as you would have them treat you.  Like many Jewish preachers of his time, Jesus spoke of the coming Day of Judgment, the resurrection of the dead, and the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven.  There were elements of the Essenes tradition in Jesus' teachings as well (the emphasis on the mystical, personal relationship with God). 

Jesus' teachings as reported in the four Gospels directly criticized the Sadducees, and his claim in the last weeks of his life to be the Messiah posed a direct challenge to the authority of the Temple priests.  Many of Jesus' teachings also outraged the Pharisees—in particular, his argument that it was more important to follow the spirit of God's law than it was to following the letter of God's law.  (For example, the Mosaic laws in the Hebrew Bible saw that the community should stone to death those found guilty of adultery; Jesus taught that only those who themselves were without sin could "cast stones" at sinners.) 

When, during Passover week in his 33rd year, Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, the Temple priests arrested and convicted him of blasphemy.  Since blaspheming amounted to a crime against the state, the Roman governor (Pilate) determined Jesus' punishment.  Pilate sentenced Jesus to the standard Roman punishment for sedition:  crucifixion.  Three days after his crucifixion, Jesus' followers reported that he had arisen from his grave.  Now the followers of this Jewish preacher became adherents of a new religion, the followers of Christ (Greek for "the anointed one").  The central tenants of this new faith was that Jesus was both the son of God and the manifestation of God; that he had lived the life of a man so as to suffer for man's sins; that he had been resurrected and then ascended into heaven; and that he would return on the Day of Judgment.

The single most important figure in propagating this new religion was the Apostle ("missionary") Paul.  Paul, born Saul (in Tarsus, in Asia Minor, in 10 CE), was a Pharisee who had never met Jesus.  Paul by his own words had persecuted the followers of Christ.  But he converted to the new faith when, on the road to Damascus [Syria], he saw a blinding light and heard the voice of Jesus, who instructed him to become God's missionary.  Paul traveled throughout Rome's eastern empire preaching the new Christian faith, and in the process, defining its differences from other sects of Judaism.

Paul argued that Christ had come as savior of all men, and not only as the Jews' Messiah.  According the Paul, Christ's coming had consummated God's "old" covenant (the promises of the Hebrew Bible), so that the Torah's laws no longer pointed the way to salvation.  Paul said that Christ had established a new covenant between man and God.  Paul argued that man, born in sin, could be redeemed (saved) only through Christ.  Those who followed the Torah laws but did not place faith in Christ and in God's grace could not find salvation.  In other words, according to Paul, Judaism was a dead end and Christianity alone was the true faith.

Paul's version of Jesus' teachings appealed to Gentiles (non-Jews) who lived among the Empire's Hebrew communities (especially in North Africa), and who had been drawn Judaism but had remained outside that faith.  Now they also could have salvation through Yahweh.  In this sense, the Christian faith resembled the Mithras cult, which offered salvation to those who believed and followed the path of righteousness.  Unlike the Mithras cult, though, Christianity offered salvation to men and women.  In the first two hundred years after Jesus' life, Christianity was simply one of dozens of "small" religions in Rome.  It did not emerge as a major religion until the 200s CE.

Christianity as Rome's State Religion 

The economic and social crisis and "barbarian" invasions of the 200s and 300s (see above) help explain the spread of Christianity in Rome.  Christianity's promise of salvation appealed most to the poor, who suffered most the costs of war, who faced heavy economic exploitation, hunger, and disease.  Christian congregations offered hope to the poor Not only as a set of religious beliefs, but also as communities—like Jewish congregations, they organized and provided social services and charity to their members, who felt tied together as part of a community.  Also, the late 200s and early 300s witnessed the spread of "mystery" cults and "miracle working cults" in Rome; the Christians, too, believed in miracles, and many Christian preachers were said to work powerful miracles.  Moreover, the Church had been evolving a sophisticated priestly hierarchy (we will return to this later), which gave Christian communities great organizational cohesiveness.   

Although the Roman government at times persecuted Christians with vigor (as under Diocletian and Galerius), generally the Roman authorities tolerated he Christianity in the same way that they tolerated other "sects."  The brief periods of severe persecution, however, proved extremely important to the culture and traditions of the early church.  Martyrs who died for their Christian beliefs became crucial symbolic figures and martyrdom was considered the ultimate act of Christian devotion.  

By 300 CE, about 3 percent of the Roman Empire's population followed the Christian faith.  Most of these Christians lived in the Eastern Empire.  The turning point for Christianity in the Roman Empire was the year 312 CE, when Emperor Constantine converted.  Constantine promoted Christianity as the Empire's chief religion, he gave Christian clergy special protections and dispensations, and he built churches across the empire.  At the end of his reign (337 CE), Constantine outlawed "pagan" sacrifices in an effort to undermine Rome's other religious cults.  Emperor Julian (361-363), reversed this decree and promoted paganism.  But all the emperors after Julian were Christians.  In 391-392 Emperor Theodosius banned all pagan cults and made Christianity Rome's one and only official state religion (although it is clear that the ban on paganism was not very effective).   

One result of state support was that Christianity became "fashionable" among the wealthy, who embraced what had been a faith of the poor.  The Emperors were now Christians, and being a Christian was necessary for upward mobility in the Roman bureaucracy.  Not all of the Roman upper classes embraced the faith; the old aristocratic families in particular resisted; they saw Christianity as vulgar and associated the old "pagan" cults with the greatness of Rome and its history.  But in the 300s and the 400s CE, the majority of Romans converted to Christianity. 

State support also had an impact on the church's organizational hierarchy.  Before Constantine's conversion, each local (parish) priests in a city or large town recognized the authority of that city's bishop.  Imperial support brought the church rapid expansion and growth, which made this hierarchy more elaborate.  Now each region had an Archbishop (or Metropolitan), who served as the head to the church at a regional (provincial) level.  The largest centers of Christian worship (like Alexandria), came under the authority of an even higher level in the clerical hierarchy, the Patriarch.   

Of all of the Patriarchs, that of Rome had the greatest authority.  This was the origin of the Papacy (the Pope).  Church doctrine held that Christ had appointed St. Peter as the head of his church and that the Bishop of Rome served as the successor of Peter.  Rome held a place of special importance in the Church's early history.  And since the Roman Emperor now generally ruled from Constantinople, he counted on Rome's Bishop to help administer power in the western territories:  in 455 CE, Emperor Valenitinian III ordered that all western bishops recognize the authority of the Roman Pope.  (Eastern bishops generally did not recognize papal authority, foreshadowing the later schism in the church between East and West.)   The existence of a clearly defined priestly hierarchy with trained priest-bureaucrats administering church affairs did much to advance the influence of Christianity.   

The connection between Imperial power and the church also helped to shape church doctrines.  Differences in interpretation of Christ's teachings had existed since the earliest years of the church.  Christianity's status as Rome's state religion, however, gave the church hierarchy great authority in doctrinal disputes, which allowed the hierarchy to dictate "correct" doctrine and to define alternative interpretations as "heresy."    

One of the most important early doctrinal disputes regarded the concept of the Trinity—the unity of God, Christ, and the Holy Ghost.  The Trinitarian doctrine was especially popular in the very important North African congregations.  But the priest Arius opposed Trinitarianism and argued that since God the Father had created Christ the Son, the two could not be the same.  In the Council of Nicea (325 CE), the church's hierarchy rejected the so-called "Arian heresy" and decreed Trinitarianism as "dogma"--the only correct doctrine on this matter.  Imperial power played a direct rule in the determination of dogma; Emperor Constantine himself had called and presided over the Nicean Council.   

The relationship between the Church and the Roman State benefited both parties.  Constantine could argue that his secular power came from his role as Christ's representative on earth.  This approach to legitimating royal power set a precedent for other Roman emperors, and then for Rome's Eastern successor state, the Byzantine Empire.   

The Evolution of Christian Practice and Thought (300s-early 500s CE)  

The emergence of Christianity as Rome's state religion and the Church's growing political power coincided with the general decline of the Western Empire and the Germanic invasions.  Many of the Church's most important theologians argued that worldly existence offered only chaos, misery, and insecurity—that God tested us in this life to see if we could resist the temptations of sin.  This world, they insisted, was profane and transitory, and only the spiritual world of God's kingdom offered peace.  (If this sounds similar to Plato's Idealist philosophy, it is because classical philosophy had a considerable influence in shaping Christian theology.)   

On response to the "sinfulness" of the world was to withdraw completely into asceticism.  In the 400s CE, monasticism emerged as an important trend in Christian devotional practice.  Thousands of laymen who wished to prove their devotion to Christ, and who considered the growing wealth and power of the church hierarchy as a contradiction to Christ's teachings, chose to live in isolation and self-imposed poverty.  Some hermit monks engaged in virtual self-torture to prove their faith; more common were communities of monks (monasteries), where they pledge to live in Christ-like poverty while dedicating themselves to prayer and labor.   

The three most important theologians of the early church—Saints Jerome (320-420 CE), Ambrose (340-397), and Augustine (354-430)—each wrestled with the problem of how to live a Christian life; each in turn helped to shape the core beliefs of the Roman church.  Jerome proposed a life of monastic seclusion, piety, and study.  And yet Jerome did not turn his back entirely on the world.  He recognized the value of the pre-Christian Roman and Greek scholars, for instance, and encouraged the study of classical scholarship subordinated to the aims of Church.  Jerome himself translated the "Old Testament" (which was written in Hebrew) and the "New Testament" (which was written in Greek) into Latin.  Since Latin was the common language to the Germanic elites, Jerome's translation of the Bible (the "Vulgate") helped speed the spread of Christianity through the former western empire.  One of the central points of Jerome's theology the rejection of "literalism"; Jerome argued that God intended the Bible to be read as allegory, as metaphor through which we can find God's truth.      

Ambrose, the Archbishop of Milan, also argued for the importance of embracing classical learning in a form subordinated to the aims of the Christ and the Church.  (Ambrose was particularly influenced by the Roman version of Stoicism.)   In wrestling with the problems of worldly misery and redemption from sin, Ambrose suggested that salvation comes only through Grace, which God bestows on some but not all Christians.  The doctrine of Grace would be most fully advanced not by Ambrose, but by Augustine.  Ambrose's most important contribution to Church history was his decision in 390 CE to excommunicate Emperor Theodosius.  The emperor, Ambrose argued, had set himself outside the community of Christ by massacring rebellious Christians in the Greek city of Thessalonica; therefore, Ambrose excommunicated Theodosius.  In doing so, Ambrose established the doctrine that the Church is independent of the Emperor and can impose discipline upon secular authorities.  (Chastened, Theodosius repented.) 

Augustine, born in North Africa into the family of a pagan father and a Christian mother, converted to Christianity at age thirty-three (in 387 CE), under the influence of Ambrose.  Within a decade, Augustine rose in the church hierarchy to the important position of Bishop of Hippo (in North Africa).  Augustine's conversion experience shaped his theology and his approach to the problems of worldliness and sin.  In his memoirs (the Confessions), Augustine explained his own sinful past and concluded that all men and women are born in sin.  God the Creator, he argued, had given people free will, but this had no bearing on their salvation—indeed, Adam and Eve had chosen sin and thus had condemned all mankind to a life of sin and sorrow.  At the beginning of time, Augustine argued, God the Redeemer had predestined some souls for salvation and condemned the rest to eternal damnation.  In other words, God through the suffering of Christ has appointed Grace to an elect few.  Good works can not earn salvation.  But, Augustine argued, men can not know the mind of God and therefore never know if they are among the elect.  Thus the only proper path in life is that of goodness in hope that one has been granted Grace.  For Augustine, this meant rejecting worldly concerns, living a life of Christ-like charity and love for one's neighbors.    

Augustine's theology not only addressed the question of how one should live, but also why God permitted the sort of chaos and crisis through which Rome suffered during his lifetime.  Augustine argued that God guides human history, and that behind all events is the mysterious hand of God, moving history towards Grace, the resurrection of Christ and the Day of Judgment.  God created mankind in two warring faction, Augustine argued—those who "live according to God" (the Chosen) and those that "live according to man" (the Condemned).    God's Grace united the Chosen into a community (the "City of God") against the Condemned, but the spiritual City of God would not become manifest until the Resurrection.  Therefore (again), it is best to walk the path of righteousness.  

Like Jerome, Augustine believed that the Bible could not be read literally, and that to begin to fathom its mysteries required education.  Therefore Augustine, who like Jerome and Ambrose had been strongly influenced by classical Greek and Roman philosophy, argued that the social elite among Christians should receive a classical education.  But also like Jerome and Ambrose, he instated that classical ideas be subordinated to the teachings of the Church. 

The Marriage of Classicism and Christianity 

Augustine's ideal of a classical yet Christian education would help meld selected elements of Roman and Greek learning into a new Christian elite culture.  One of the central figures in this process was the Roman aristocrat Boethius (480-524 CE).  Boethius authored texts about many of the most important Greek and Roman scholarly works, as well as translations on major Greek works into Latin.  His aim in these graceful translations was to preserve elements of classical learning that he felt best fit into the teachings of Christianity.  Thanks to Boethius, these texts survived into the Middle Ages; his translations, for instance, became the main source of western knowledge about the works of Aristotle.  But Boethius' interpretation of the Greeks was filtered through Christian theology, and in particular through the teachings of Augustine.  He presented the Greek myths, for instance, as allegories for various Christian concepts.   

The problem that faced Boethius and other Christian scholars was how to purge classical learning of its pagan roots so that they could establish the superiority of Christian doctrine without losing the wisdom of classical philosophy.  This meant ignoring that vast majority of classical literature, which as a result disappeared.  It also meant adopting the very strict position that any classical text that could not be Christianized should be banned.   

Much of the work of "Christianizing" classical texts and reproducing such texts took place in the monasteries.  The monastic movement had became systemized in the early 500s, under the influence of the monk Benedict (St. Benedict), who laid out a set of rules which would become the basis for the organization of Christian monastic life (the "Latin Rule").  Monks from the Benedictine Order took vows of celibacy and of absolute obedience to the Abbot and led simple lives devoted to labor and prayer.   

Note:  The Benedictine monks were not alone in taking vows of celibacy; by the 400s, the Church had begun to insist that priests also remain single and celibate.  In an important sense, this reflected the dualistic image of women in the early Christian church. The Church propagated two images of women—woman as Mary, the virginal mother of God; or woman as Eve, the temptress who through her sexuality led man into sin.   The church saw women's sexuality as dangerous, as tied to sin; hence the celibacy of priests and monks prevented their "spiritual population."  Moreover, by the late 400s the Church insisted that both men and women must remain virgins until marriage, and that even then the only justification for the debased act of intercourse was to produce children.  The Church did recognize women as having souls and as being capable of salvation, but emphasized their inferiority to men.  A woman's only proper roles, the Church taught, were that of obedient wife and mother. 

 One of Benadict's successors, Cassiodorus, added to Benadict's rules the idea that monks should have a solid understanding of classical learning as well as of the Bible.  Thus the Benedictine monasteries became important centers of scholarship and for the copying of texts.  Without the work of the monasteries, few classical texts would have survived.

The Roman Empire's Last Gasps

In 527 CE, the throne of the Eastern Empire in Constantinople passed to Justinian.  One Justinian first projects was to begin revising and codifying Roman law.  The result, the Corpus Juris Civilis (the body of civil law), reinforced the legal status of emperor's rule by recognizing his powers as unlimited (although, in the old Roman tradition, the emperor's power was said to come from the people).  The Justinian code would influence thinking about the state, state power, property rights, and civil law for the next thousand years.  Justinian saw the emperor as the legal ruler not only of the Eastern Empire, but of the entire Roman Empire, East and West.  This guided his military policy, which aimed at reunifying the empire.

In the 530s, Justinian's armies conquered North Africa, most of Italy, and much of Spain.  The Goths, however, resisted stubbornly, and a guerrilla war dragged on into 560s.  By Justinian's death in 565, Rome was again "united."  But the cost of the war in soldiers and in taxes was crippling.  With the Empire weakened and its dwindling army tied down in fighting Germanic resistance Europe, the Persians saw and seized the opportunity to attack from the East.  Constantinople again lost control over most of Italy, Gaul, and Spain.  In 610, Constantinople gave up all pretense of controlling the West.  The Roman Empire was dead.