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Christian Emperors

Rome's system of government offered only violence as a means of contesting power. That was the kind of government Constantine had inherited, and he passed it on to his sons. Bishop Eusebius saw a god-induced harmony produced by Constantine's rule, and he believed that this harmony would continue with the rule of Constantine's three co-emperor sons.

But the sons quarreled. The eldest son, Constantine II, claimed authority over his two younger brothers, who were unwilling to submit. One of the brothers, Constans, defeated the eldest, and the eldest died (in 340 at the age of 24). Constans was killed a decade later by a rebel military commander, and he lost power three years later to the third son, Constantius, who now ruled over the entire empire. And to consolidate his rule, Constantius had members of his army murder possible rivals within his family: half-brothers and others.

Constantius (to be known to historians as Constantius II) attempted to extend his victories into the realm of religion. Unlike his deceased brothers and some others in his family, Constantius held to the Arian version of Christianity rather than the Trinity version. Believing that he was advancing the cause of Christianity, he exiled numerous Trinity-believing bishops. And, to advance the cause of Christianity, he banned the ritual sacrifices of pagans, making participation in such rituals a capital offense. Mobs of zealous Christians followed the lead of Constantius by invading pagan temples and overturning alters. Pagans were offended, and across the empire they responded with bitterness and rioting.

Constantius had chosen to rear a five-year-old nephew name Julian, orphaned by the killings within his extended family. As Julian grew into teenhood he became oppressed by Christian strictness and the earnestness with which his guardians espoused Christianity. He became bookish and acquired a love for Hellenistic culture. Christian bishops were proud of their Greek learning, and Julian was allowed to further his Hellenist education. Secretly he became a neo-Platonist — a pagan philosophy — while continuing an outward appearance of Christian devotion.

When Julian was twenty-three, Constantius sent him to Gaul at the head of an army. And in 357 at the Rhine River at Strasbourg, Julian and his army succeeded in expelling Germanic invaders: the Franks and Alamanni. Constantius became jealous of the glory won by Julian. He kept Julian and his army short of funds and kept him under surveillance. In 360 in Lutetia (Paris) Julian's soldiers acclaimed him emperor. Constantius died of fever in 361. Julian became the last of Rome's non-Christian emperors. He began his rule with an acceptance of other faiths. He rescinded the law that forbade marriage between Jews and Christians. He rescinded the law that banned Jews from entering Jerusalem, and he allowed Jews in Jerusalem to rebuild their temple.

While maintaining the rights of Christians as citizens, including their right to worship, Julian moved to abolish privileges that had been bestowed upon the Christian clergy, including their positions as teachers. The hostility of Christians toward Julian grew. In 363, Emperor Julian led a military campaign against the expansions of the Sasanian (Persian) monarch Shapur II, pushing Shapur's forces back to his capital, Ctesiphon. Julian's army captured many, including women and youths, and he allowed no one to molest them. Again he went into battle against the Persians, and he died of wounds from an arrow or spear. Christians rejoiced at news of his death, and they expressed their belief that Julian's death was the work of God. The following year, 364, the Greek orator, Libanius of Antioch, stated that Julian had been assassinated by a Christian who was one of his own soldiers.

In early 364, army troops resorted to the old way of declaring their commander as Rome's emperor. The commander and new emperor was Valentinian, age 43 and a Christian. Valentinian believed that defense of the empire required at least two emperors, and in March 364 he appointed his brother Valens as Emperor of the East.

Valentinian continued religious toleration, declaring that no religion was to be declared criminal. He created schools throughout his realm. And to protect the poor he created offices called Defenders of the People. Valentinian and his army defeated German invasions three times, and he remained at the Rhine frontier for seven years, building fortifications. He reigned for eleven years, until his death from natural causes in the year 375. His brother, Valens, died in 378 fighting Goths as the Battle of Adrianople.

Meanwhile there was concern about internal support for defensive actions against invaders. Some on in the imperial bureaucracy wrote a tract — "On Matters of Warfare" — describing official corruption and the rich oppressing the poor as causing disorder. The author saw a need for an increase in patriotism in the empire.

The new emperor in the East, Theodosius, was concerned about the hostility of Christians toward Jews. Gone was the toleration that Julian had advocated. Christians viewed Judaism as the work of the devil, as an evil manifest in the rejection of Jesus and responsible for the death of Jesus (however much that death was supposed to be a divine plan of sacrifice and the lifting of humanity's sin). At Christian torchlight meetings, among the angry slogans shouted were those against Jews and Jew lovers. As Roman citizens, Jews were protected from attack by law, and when Christians burned a synagogue, Theodosius ordered it rebuilt, the cost to be paid by the Church. The influential Bishop Ambrose told Theodosius that he, Theodosius, was threatening the Church's prestige. Ambrose convinced Theodosius to let the destruction of synagogues stand. Across the empire the burning of synagogues continued. In Judea (a part of Rome's empire), entire Jewish villages were set on fire. New rules against Jews were created: they were to be excluded from holding any state office, serving in the military and forbidden to proselytize or intermarry with Christians.

In the city of Salonica (in the eastern half of the empire) a military commander imprisoned a popular chariot driver for homosexuality. A crowd of outraged fans lynched the commander, and Theodosius responded by ordering a massacre of several thousand. This outraged until he accepted penance for this deed. Theodosius did his penance, and he reconciled with Ambrose by accepting Ambrose's views on what should be done about paganism. Theodosius banned the Olympic games — which were considered pagan. He prohibited visits to pagan temples and he forbade all pagan worship. Christians were delighted, and mobs of Christians joined the anti-pagan program, robbing pagan temples and looting temple libraries.

There had been no harmony between Theodosius and a usurper co-emperor in the West, Magnus Maximus. Theodosius defeated him militarily and had him executed, and by 392 Theodosius was ruler of all the empire. That same year in the West a military commander who was German and not eligible to be emperor tried to put in power an anti-Christian puppet named Eugenius. Eugenius announced that the hour of deliverance from Christianity was at hand. Theodosius made pagan worship punishable by death, and in 394 he led an army against Eugenius and defeated him at the Frigidus River in the extreme northeast of Italy, a victory the Church was later to interpret as the work of God triumphing over paganism. But there would be trouble enough to dampen this victory. Empires are not nations, and if they cannot be defended they disintegrate.

CONTINUE READING: The Empire Disintegrates

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Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.



to the top | home

Copyright © 2017 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.