The rise of Christianity in the later Roman Empire is an important factor to consider when explaining its decline. However, like other factors, the weight historians have given to this issue varies, as does the approach they take to it. Some believe it to be highly influential, changing the whole way of Roman life overnight. Some believe that it gradually changed Roman society over a long period of time and some believe it was hardly significant at all. Others believe that Roman ideals even influenced early Christianity. I will look at the work of four historians who have different views about the influence of Christianity on the decline of the Roman Empire. I will also attempt to find continuities between the arguments to discover whether Christianity plays the same role in every account with only minor differences.
begin by looking closely at the work of Keith Hopkins who clearly believes that
Christianity had a profound impact upon Roman society, completely sweeping away
their previous beliefs. Indeed, his opening quotation of Mao Zedong: “A
revolution is an uprising, by which one class overthrows another” (1)
sheds much light on his upcoming argument. He believes that the rise of
Christianity was tantamount to a revolution, not a true social revolution but a
“revolution principally in symbolism and ideology” (3). He presents
this scenario by telling a narrative story of an elaborate Pagan festival in
which the whole community took part in and then contrasts it to Christian
festivals. Clearly this is designed to aid his belief that the practices and
rituals of the Christians and Pagans were completely opposite. He continues the revolution argument by suggesting that the
symbolism of the empire was completely changed by Christianity, that “Christ’s
undignified and suffering death on the cross became the new symbol of human
salvation” (2) which he describes on the same page as “a radical
break with pagan polytheism, animal sacrifice and temple worship”. This change
in lifestyle is central to Hopkins’s argument, he then shows the extent of
Christianity’s influence on Roman life and culture saying that it “introduced
new styles of theological argument, new literary genres, new heroes…” (4)
which shows an extensive overturn in everyday life. He gives the example of
Saint Andrew as a new hero to the Roman people, a strong figure who carried out
many miracles and who came into conflict with the Roman government and was
crucified (6). The fact that Roman citizens started looking up to
what would have been considered enemies to the empire in the early years AD
show a remarkable change in attitudes. Although it may sound as though Hopkins believes that the
rise of Christianity was an overnight revolution, he suggests that it was, in
fact, a gradual one. He gives the reasons for the gradual influence of
Christianity as being that the revolution came at a time when, due to other
social and economic changes, “the Roman army’s firepower was too limited to
enforce thoroughgoing changes on to a dispersed population” (5).
So it is clear that Keith Hopkins believes that the conversion of Rome to Christianity was a slow revolutionary change. He takes the socio-historical view that a change in religion had the most impact on the people, but is this view a bit too narrow? His argument is strong in that it gets the message across, that Christianity brought sweeping changes to every day life, but he doesn’t really say how this weakened the empire at all. Perhaps he believes that it didn’t weaken the empire at all, but Hopkins’s own views on this issue are not clear.
So, Hopkins’s argument is that Christianity caused a gradual revolution in culture and ideas. Now I will look at a man whose argument conforms to the revolutionary template but who believes the consequences to be far greater than mere ideological change. This is the argument of eighteenth century historian Edward Gibbon who firmly believed that there was a definite, tragic end to the existence of the Roman Empire and, as we shall see, he suggests that Christianity played a huge part in it’s decline. Gibbon clearly believes that the influence of Christianity, or at least “the abuse of Christianity” (7) crippled the empire calling it an “awful revolution” (8). These are strong words and this style of expression continues throughout the piece. Gibbon, like Hopkins, believes that Christianity had an impact on society, but he believes it to be much more severe. Gibbon argues that Christian priests preached “doctrines of peace and pusillanimity” (9) which had bad consequences throughout the empire. He argues that these preachers discouraged “all active virtues of society” (10), he is suggesting here that the passive elements of Christianity undermined the foundations of society. Obviously, if the farmers spent a lot of their time praying they would grow less crops and the possibility of famine could rise. Though this is serious, Gibbon is more concerned that these new-found Christian virtues had a more disastrous effect on the army, the main force of Rome’s greatness. “The last remains of the military spirit were buried in the cloister” (11) which meant that people were far less compelled to take up arms against invaders. The other stem of Gibbon’s argument is that Rome was taken by force by barbarian invaders, clearly on this statement the two elements go hand in hand. Another way in which Gibbon believes the new religion affected the military might of Rome is the redirection of it’s funds:
“the soldiers’ pay was lavished on the multitudes of both sexes, who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity”
This statement suggests that Rome’s army went from being an elite band of professional soldiers to a less devoted army of volunteers due to the Christian virtue of charity. While Gibbon believes that Christianity had disastrous effects on the Roman Empire, he believes that the benefits it had upon the barbarians were somewhat more beneficial to Rome. He believes that the influence of the passive elements of Christianity “mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors” (12) and “broke the violence of the fall” (12). Though clearly this did not prevent the fall of Rome, it allowed it to survive for a bit longer in Gibbon’s view. Gibbon’s argument is rather flawed in that he is clearly fitting the events around his belief that there was a definite end to the Roman Empire. This is something that Hopkins was not concerned with at all but, like Hopkins, Gibbon’s belief in Christianity as a revolution is clear. Also, both are concerned with popular Christianity in society and place little emphasis on how Christianity affected the rule of Rome. Gibbon is also primarily concerned with the influence of Christianity in the western empire and doesn’t explain how the circumstances differed in the eastern empire.
So far we have seen the arguments of two historians who believe that Christianity had a strong effect on the everyday lives of the Roman people. I will now look at an historian who argues that the effects of Christianity were not as catastrophic is Gibbon makes them out to be. This next argument comes from Ramsay MacMullen who covers in his essay a range of topics and discusses how the rise of Christianity affected them. He presents his argument in five sections describing how Christianity influenced sexual mores, slavery, gladiatorial combat, judicial penalties and corruption in government. I will look at each of these and present his conclusions.
The first thing I should point out is that, once again, the historical period studied falls between 312 and 400 AD which has been somewhat of a continuous theme so far. This tells us a lot about the period in which historians feel Christianity took hold of the empire. This narrow period of ninety years is a short period of time for a new religion to establish itself amongst so many people so perhaps the word “revolution” does apply. However, as we will see, MacMullen has rather the opposite view of Gibbon or Hopkins. MacMullen first addresses the effect of Christianity upon attitudes to slavery. Slavery was an important element of pagan life, work was done by slaves and that was the norm. MacMullen argues that the Christians held the same view and “never intended it’s abolition” (13). They never introduced any “radical innovation” but merely continued “along lines laid down earlier” (14). MacMullen even gives us a straight answer to his own question:
“If we ask…whether life was on the whole easier for slaves in Christian times…the answer is probably no” (15).
This is a rather sharp contrast to the revolutionary ideas of Gibbon and Hopkins all be it about a different topic.
Secondly, MacMullen looks at the effects of Christianity on sexual and moral values. MacMullen’s phrase “it is not enough to say there was a pagan code and a Christian code and the latter won” (16) sums up his argument very well. He believes that there was little change here as well. He argues that there was more of a contrast in sexual mores between the classes of society and regions of the empire rather than between religions. He gives a few examples of this. The dress code for women outdoors was practically the same for Christians and pagans but only women of class could wear purple cloth as their veil. This was not a problem as only wealthy women could afford purple cloth (17). A better example of this class and regional distinction is perhaps the attitude towards homosexual activity. It was quite normal for noblemen in pagan society to do as they pleased regarding sexual preferences (18) but he explains that this died out after the reign of Hadrian (18). He does however say that homosexuality continued to be common within the upper classes in the eastern empire (19). So, as we can see from these examples, sexual mores show “considerable overlap” between pagan and Christian times.
Finally, MacMullen looks at the influence of Christianity on attitudes towards gladiators, attitudes towards judicial punishment and bribery. Again, he finds a lot of continuity between pagan and Christian attitudes saying that both had condemned attendance at shows (20) but cites economic reasons for the decline in gladiatorial combat in the later empire rather than the influence of Christianity (21). In fact he even goes as far as to say that “the role of Christianity in the abandoning of most western gladiatorial combat was nil” (22). Again, MacMullen leans towards the continuity side of the argument. He does, however, believe there were a few changes in the attitudes towards corporal punishment or, to be more accurate, the methods of it. He argues that, although attitudes towards gladiatorial violence changed, examples of “judicial savagery” increased in the Christian era (23). Punishments such as dismemberment of the hands for thieves replaced punishments such as crucifixion (24). Attitudes to bribery also changed slightly from pagan times. According to MacMullen, some statesmen accepted bribes “before God” (25) suggesting that they believed God approved of it, or to clear their conscience. He does however suggest that both Christian and pagan emperors were aware of corruption and legislated to stop it (26). It was, however, too great a task for either. MacMullen clearly believes there was little change as a result of the direct influence of Christianity. It should be noted, however, that MacMullen concentrates on very specific issues and ones which neither pagans or Christians had any strong views about. We have to ask whether MacMullen is picking and choosing his examples to fit a pre-determined personal belief that little changed as a result of conversion to Christianity.
As my final account I will look at the very interesting perspective of Peter Heather who turns the question of how Rome became christianised on its head and asks how Christianity actually became Romanised (27). In sharp contrast to Gibbon and Hopkins’s Christian revolution, Heather believes that Christianity was “no one was street, but a process of mutual adoption” (27). So Heather rejects ideas of Christianity as a revolutionary movement. He attacks the belief that Christians undermined the empire by saying that “rejection of the empire was little more than an undertone among 4th century Christians” (28). He backs this up by saying that Christian objections were seldom effective and not continuous enough to cause damage to the empire (29) One change that Heather points out is the collapse of the marble trade due to the dismantling of pagan temples and the sale of cheap marble on the black market (30) but this change is hardly significant in the wide sense and was not an absolute disaster to the economy. Heather agrees with Hopkins in the sense that he believes Christianity produced new heroes but not in the same sense as Hopkins’s martyrs. He suggests that people who found wisdom through religion despite not receiving any formal education were looked up to in society (31). The most unusual point in Heather’s argument is that there were remarkable similarities between pagan and Christian attitudes toward the empire. Heather points out that the story of the empire was originally that the Gods and deities had charged the emperor with creating the ultimate state. After the conversion of Constantine the story remained essentially the same except that the role of the pagan deities was adopted by the Christian God (32). From this it is possible to say that the idea of Christianity being the creator of civilisation is actually a Roman belief adopted by Christianity. Peter Heather’s work is well backed up with use of many primary and secondary sources but his focus, in contrast to Gibbon and Hopkins, is mainly on the upper classes and so does not take into account the wider consequences.
We have seen then that the significance given to the role of Christianity in the later Roman Empire are very diverse and vary greatly from historian to historian. Christianity is seen as anything from an aggressive revolutionary movement to a passive and peaceful movement that implemented itself without any trouble. The rise of Christianity also raises many questions, whether they be about the Christianisation of Rome or indeed the Romanisation of Christianity. The general consensus appears to be that Christianity began to gain momentum in the empire after the conversion of Constantine in 312 AD as most accounts start around this period. Three of the four accounts that I looked at ended their account around 400 AD which suggests that many historians accept this period as the time when Christianity had fully settled in the empire. Of course, this may be a criticism of these accounts as it can be argued that this time frame is too narrow and does not explain the Christian movement fully. All of the accounts suggest that Christianity caused many changes in Roman culture and beliefs but in each account this caused a different degree of damage to the empire. It is difficult create a conclusive account explaining exactly how Christianity affected the Roman empire due to the many views and opinions on the matter.
1) Keith Hopkins, A World full of Gods: Pagans, Jews and Christians in the Roman Empire, Page 78
2) Keith Hopkins, A World full of Gods: Pagans, Jews and Christians in the Roman Empire, P. 78
3) Keith Hopkins, A World full of Gods: Pagans, Jews and Christians in the Roman Empire, P. 79
4) Keith Hopkins, A World full of Gods: Pagans, Jews and Christians in the Roman Empire, P. 80
5) Keith Hopkins, A World full of Gods: Pagans, Jews and Christians in the Roman Empire, P. 79
6) Keith Hopkins, A World full of Gods: Pagans, Jews and Christians in the Roman Empire, P. 144
7) J.B. Bury, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, P. 162
8) J.B. Bury, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, P. 163
9) J.B. Bury, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, P. 162
10) J.B. Bury, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, P. 162
11) J.B. Bury, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, P. 162/163
12) J.B. Bury, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, P. 163
13) Ramsay MacMullen, Changes in the Roman Empire: Essays in the Ordinary, P. 143
14) Ramsay MacMullen, Changes in the Roman Empire: Essays in the Ordinary, P. 143
15) Ramsay MacMullen, Changes in the Roman Empire: Essays in the Ordinary, P. 143
16) Ramsay MacMullen, Changes in the Roman Empire: Essays in the Ordinary, P. 145
17) Ramsay MacMullen, Changes in the Roman Empire: Essays in the Ordinary, P. 144
18) Ramsay MacMullen, Changes in the Roman Empire: Essays in the Ordinary, P. 145
19) Ramsay MacMullen, Changes in the Roman Empire: Essays in the Ordinary, P. 146
20) Ramsay MacMullen, Changes in the Roman Empire: Essays in the Ordinary, P. 148
21) Ramsay MacMullen, Changes in the Roman Empire: Essays in the Ordinary, P. 147
22) Ramsay MacMullen, Changes in the Roman Empire: Essays in the Ordinary, P. 147
23) Ramsay MacMullen, Changes in the Roman Empire: Essays in the Ordinary, P. 148
24) Ramsay MacMullen, Changes in the Roman Empire: Essays in the Ordinary, P. 149
25) Ramsay MacMullen, Changes in the Roman Empire: Essays in the Ordinary, P. 151
26) Ramsay MacMullen, Changes in the Roman Empire: Essays in the Ordinary, P. 152
27) Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire, P. 126
28) Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire, P. 126
29) Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire, P. 121
30) Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire, P. 122
31) Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire, P. 130
1) Bury. J.B, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, London, Third Edition
2) Heather. P, The Fall of the Roman Empire, MacMillan, 2005
K, A World full of Gods: Pagans, Jews and Christians in the Roman Empire, London,
4) MacMullen. R, Changes in the Roman Empire: Essays in the Ordinary, Princeton, New Jersey, 1990