In our last lesson, we studied the life of Constantine, the Roman emperor and Christian convert who ended the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. Our study of Constantine, however, was limited to the early years of his reign as we concentrated on his importance in light of the early Christian Church rather than his importance in the history of the Roman Empire. In this lesson we will continue with our study of Constantine and his influence on world history.
Divide et Impera
We learned briefly about the changes made by the emperor Diocletian in 293 AD. The Roman Empire had become so great at that time that it could no longer be governed well from Rome. It was necessary that he follow the principle of Dívide et Ímpera–“Divide and Rule”. Diocletian divided the Roman Empire into two halves–East and West–and created a system of government known as a tetrarchy (rule by four) that divided power between two Augusti (co-emperors), each of whom was followed by Caesari (junior co-emperors). The first co-emperors, Diocletian and Galerius ruled the East, while Maximian and Constantinus Chlorus (the father of Constantine) ruled the West.
Obviously, these rulers needed to establish locations from which they would govern and four capitals were established by the tetrarchs and we should learn their names and locations. Surprisingly, Rome was not one of the four capitals. In the East, Diocletian ruled from the city of Nicomedia, which is on the eastern coast of the Bosporous, south of the Black Sea. Galerius ruled from Sirmium, which was located about half-way along the highway between Nicomedia and Rome. Maximian, the western Augustus, ruled at the capital city of Mediolanum, which lay about half-way between Rome and Trier, which was the capital of Constantinus Chlorus’ rule in the northwest. On the map below, you can see the location of the four areas of the tetrarchy and their capital cities:
Unfortunately, Diocletian’s plan worked only until his time of command ended. The second tetrarchy that formed after he and Maximian gave up their positions unraveled and fighting broke out among the successors. That should sound familiar to you as you continue to study through world history.
When all the fighting was over and the dust had settled, Constantine was in complete command of the entire Empire. We know of his gentle treatment and protection of Christians. What we will now look at is what happened in the Empire during and after his rule.
The Center of the World
When we look at a world map today, we see Rome in the center of the world that stretches from Hawaii and Alaska in the West all the way to Russia, Japan and Australia in the far East. The way we think of the world may make it difficult for us to understand why the Greeks and Romans did what they did. What we see is that the Greeks and Romans were always trying to gain power in the East, with their backs turned toward the West. In fact, every major kingdom did the same thing and each time they did, they allowed a new power further West to rise and conquer them! The Greeks conquered Persia. Rome conquered Greece. The northern barbarians wore down the Romans. Great Britain became the most powerful nation in Europe. Today, America is the most powerful nation in the world. When we look at the Roman tetrarchy, we see that their division of the Empire is influenced by the idea that the world ended at the Atlantic. We can see, however, that the Romans knew their trouble came from the north and West for we can see that all of the capital cities of the tetrarchy were located near the northern boundaries of the Roman Empire. Rome may have been the greatest city in the world, but it was too far from where the real business of ruling was to be done. After the tetrarchy fell apart and Constantine took command, he founded a city in what he considered to be a more central location. He chose for his city an ancient city, known as Byzantium.
Byzantium: The City of Byzas
As the sole ruler of the entire Roman Empire, why did Constantine choose Byzantium to be his capital city? We know that Rome was no longer a good place to rule from, but why Byzantium? Let’s begin by learning a little about this ancient city that we may understand the mind of Constantine and why our study of history leads us to this of all cities.
According to Greek myths, which tell us of the believed origins of god, cities, heroes and customs, there sat on the edge of a strait called the Bosporos (“cow-crossing”) a land that would become a mighty city. Io’s grandson, born to Poseidon, was Byzas, and he was led by the gods to this land around 670 BC. There he founded the city that would control the strait that connected all the cities around the coast of the Black Sea to not only the Sea of Marmara and its cities, but also all of the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean as well. Byzantium sat as the bridge between the greatest seas of the classical world and also as the bridge between the East and the West. These benefits allowed the city to grow and grow for hundreds of years and it became an economic and cultural center of the late classical world.
It is important to note that another great city had been founded 20 years earlier on the opposite side of the Bosporus, and named Chalcedon. The Greek myths say that the famous oracle at Delphi advised Byzas to establish his city “oppoosite the land of the blind”. He did not understand what this meant at the time but later realized that the location of Chalcedon on the eastern side of the Bosporus was so greatly inferior to the land that lay across the strait that the men who established Chalcedon must have been blind!
In modern times the biggest businesses line the busiest highways, but in the ancient world the seas were the highways. Looking at Byzantium on the map, we can see how it not only could control access to and from the great sea, but that the city itself was surrounded with excellent coastlines that made trade and transportation very easy. The “Golden Horn” provided Byzantium with a wide and excellent harbor that was easily protected. The location and the quality of the location itself allowed Byzantium to prosper soon after it was built.
Roman Eyes on Byzantium
The city of Byzas enjoyed great prosperity for many years, but as the Roman Empire grew and government of the Empire became more difficult, it was inevitable that the excellent location of Byzantium would interest the Romans. In 324 AD, after establishing his command of the Empire, Constantine decided that Byzantium was to be his own possession. The emperor spent six years making preparations and re-named the city Nova Roma, “New Rome”. It was to be the emperor’s new place of residence and–at that time– the capital of the Roman Empire. After Constantine’s death, the city was renamed Constantinopolis–the city of Constantine. The English version of this name is Constantinople.
The city was filled with new construction projects that would make it to be a city worthy of the emperor’s presence. It was not, however, a replacement of Rome and it was inferior in many ways to “the Eternal City”. The ancient buildings and statues of Rome were the finest the world had ever seen and they could not be duplicated in Byzantium. The roads and sewers and aqueducts that had been built over a thousand years in Rome could not be built in a few years in Byzantium. All roads still led to Rome and Rome was still Rome, but in Constantine’s day, government affairs were more easily handled from Byzantium.
The Ecumenical Councils
As the Christian Church spread throughout the Empire, different groups developed in different places that caused Christianity to appear to be teaching different things in different places. The bishops in Alexandria may have done things differently than the bishops in Rome, who likewise did things differently than the bishops of Byzantium and so on. Sometimes individual bishops began to teach things that differed from the teachings of other bishops. Christian unity was threatened by these growing differences within the Church. As the Roman Empire was now unified under Constantine, he did not want to see the Church divided because of differences in location and culture, but to truly be One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.
Therefore, in 325 AD, Constantine used his power as emperor to call all Christian bishops together to the city of Nicaea (see map above) for the First Ecumenical Council. Here, the bishops would meet and discuss matters and then formally publish the Catholic Church’s views on the issues necessary to Christian life and teaching. The generous emperor paid for the entire event, including the transportation of as many as 300 Christian bishops to Nicaea. It’s hard to imagine how the bishops must have rejoiced to consider that 20 years earlier they were being hunted down and killed by Diocletian and here they were being generously cared for by Constantine. The result of the Council of Nicaea was the Nicene Creed, which most of us recite every Sunday during Mass to this day. In history, the division among Christians was not a matter of whether one was eastern or western, but whether or not one was orthodox or unorthodox. To be orthodox (right-teaching) meant that a Christian believed the Nicene Creed and to be unorthodox meant that one did not accept the Nicene Creed.
Over the next 450 years, from 325 to 787, there would be a total of seven ecumenical councils held by the Catholic Church–all of which met in the East–either in Nicaea, Constantinople, Chalcedon or Ephesus. While these councils were held in the East, we must understand that the Catholic Church, like the Roman Empire was still permanently centered in Rome, even though it was temporarily–for governing purposes–working from the East. Some today confuse Constantine’s move to the East with a rejection of Rome and a denial of the authority of Rome in the Christian Church, but this is not true. The Catholic Church remained a unified whole until much later–the 11th century AD–when, for reasons which were not entirely religious at all, the Eastern and Western (i.e., Roman) churches split. Today, we can still see the reality that the Catholic Church remains oriented around the Roman Catholic Church, for while there are some 300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians in the world, there are over three times as many Roman Catholic (Orthodox) Christians in the world. As we will see below, orthodox Christians always acknowledged Rome as the Church’s center.
The Edict of Thessalonica (380 AD)
Diocletian had divided the Empire into two halves–East and West–and Constantine made his home in the East. The Roman emperors followed the principle of Divide et Impera, which is a wise principle only when the division is not a real division so that there is fighting within a nation but merely a division for the sake of managing things in an easier way. Unfortunately, for the Romans, the day would come when the division of the empire was not merely a way of managing affairs well, but a true division that would weaken and destroy the ancient Empire.
The rule of the Empire remained complicated after the death of Constantine in 337 AD. Diocletian’s system of Augusti and Caesari ruling the eastern and western halves of the Empire continued. We do not have time in this lesson to discuss the different rulers that followed Constantine, but we will focus on a very important time in the Empire.
In 367, the ruler of the West was Gratian and in 379, the ruler of the East became Theodosius I. These men were orthodox Christians who made orthodox Christianity the official religion of the Empire. In 380, they met to publish what is known as the Edict of Thessalonica, which made unorthodox Christianity illegal and clearly proves the fact that eastern Christians understood the bishop of Rome to be the head of the Church and successor of the Apostle Peter:
Note: The pope (pontiff) referred to in the edict was the man we know today as Pope St. Damasus I. He was the bishop of Rome from 366 to his death in 384 and is the pope who ordered St. Jerome to produce a complete translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. This Latin Bible, now referred to as the Vulgate is the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church. Any who pretend that the early Christians did not recognize the existence of the Pope and St. Peter’s relationship to Rome would do well to study history more carefully.
The Fall of Rome
In 392, Theodosius I became the sole emperor of the Roman Empire and his death came shortly thereafter, in 395. Upon his death, the Roman Empire was divided in half between his two sons, Arcadius and Honorius and it would never be re-united. This division was not the good kind that allowed for ease of government, but was the kind Our Lord warned about when He said, “A nation divided against itself cannot stand.”
After the death of Theodosius I, the emperors were of little importance, for the real leaders of the Empire were the military leaders who had the support of their armies. Those who held the positions of emperors were forced to consider how they might maintain their own power and therefore, they didn’t necessarily have the interest of the entire Roman Empire as their own. It was thus a constant wrestling match for power within the Roman Empire while, at the same time, they were supposed to somehow resist attacks from enemies outside the Empire.
By the 470s, the western Empire was no longer able to resist the invasions of the Germanic tribes. We have to realize that the Romans had been holding off enemies from the north since before the time of Julius Caesar, so this was itself not anything new. The difference was that throughout history, Rome could rally its strength together to resist any opponent. In the 5th century AD, they could do so no more.
In 476 AD, Odoacer, leading an army of Germanic tribesmen against the western emperor forced him to surrender and step down. Odoacer was established not as emperor of the West, but simply as the King of Italy. The western Roman Empire had fallen.
Historically, this is referred to as “the fall of the Roman Empire”, but that’s really not accurate. The eastern half of the Empire remained as it was. What really happened was that classical, Rome-centered Empire was no more but that a new civilization was about to emerge in the West. The Catholic Church was firmly established with its center at Rome and the powers of hell would never prevail against it (it remains today as strong as ever). The culture and legacy of Rome would never be eclipsed in matters of practical wisdom in the areas of law and government. The new civilization that would emerge would include a mixture of three important elements:
the classical culture and memory of Rome
the growing influence of Catholic Christianity
the barbaric culture of the northern tribes
We should be careful here to avoid confusing barbaric with pagan as many do today. To say that a group of people is “barbaric” simply means that they did not share customs with Rome. That does not necessarily mean, however, that they were not Christians. Some today, especially Protestants, suggest that as these cultural influences mingled, the culture that resulted was a corrupted or “paganized” Christianity, but this is false. Barbaric influences were not necessarily “pagan”, but often made valuable contributions to the development of Christian culture. St. Paul defended the foreigners as he wrote in the first century:
“There is neither Gentile nor Jew, Barbarian nor Scythian, slave nor free man, but Christ is all, and in all.”
To be a barbarian was not to be a non-Christian and the conqueror Odoacer was himself a Christian, but was unorthodox. This is an important reality to keep in mind as we move forward in our study of the history of Europe in the Middle Ages. We will find that the barbarians brought many things to the table that would help enrich and strengthen Christendom that Greek and Roman culture could not.
The fall of the western half of the Empire in 476 AD marks the end of the Classical Age in world Chronology, and the new civilization that would develop marks the beginning of the Medieval Age or “Middle Ages”. For the sake of simplicity we normally say that the Medieval Age begins around 500 AD.
As your teacher, I want to encourage you to read the writings of the Church Fathers! These are some of the most important Christian writings outside of the Bible and so few Christians read them today. You can read English translations of the writings of the Church’s leaders who lived during the times of Constantine, Theodosius and the fall of Rome. You can read the letters Pope Damasus wrote St. Jerome and those written from St. Jerome to St. Augustine. You can read the famous sermons of St. John Chrysóstom who was bishop of Constantinople during these times. Oh yeah, in Grammar I, you’ve already been doing this: the Latin we have been translating into English is the Latin of St. Jerome, whom Pope St. Damasus ordered to translate the entire Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. Ask your parents to spend some time with you exploring the library of the Fathers at the New Advent website. It’s excellent!