3) Rise of Byzantium, Orphaned West

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Decaying Roots
Nero's Tomb


Upon Emperor Nero’s death, at the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, in 68 CE insurgent uprisings, religious persecutions, government divisions and border invasions would plague the one-time powerful and united government of the Roman Empire.

Forced Division

Once Emperor Diocletian came to power in 285 CE, a territorial division of the empire into a tetrarchy of four separate dioceses would be employed. The hope was that provisional specific governance would allow for a more responsive and stable empire. By then, the growing tide of Christianity was reshaping beliefs as well as becoming a major factor in government policy. After Diocletian’s abdication in 305 CE and the death of Constantius the following year, civil war would again ensue. It would then take the insight of Constantine the Great to harness a growing tide of Christianity and sweep himself onto the throne.

4th Century Carving of Saints Peter and Paul

Apostolic Dissension

Synonymous with the empire, the followers of Jesus had also seen division and unrest. Dissension amongst the original apostles began within a few years of Jesus’ death, when Saints Paul and Barnabas began the conversion of non-Jews.

Attempting to stand firm with Jewish tradition and rites was the young Church’s head, Saint Peter, who would unsuccessfully cling to Christ’s command Do not go among the Gentiles...” [Matthew 10:5-42].

Once Gentiles were admitted, there would be exceptions and division over the Jewish requirements of circumcision and dietary tradition. Subsequently, as the observance of Jewish rites dwindled, so too did Jewish enrollment. Even leadership roles would be filled by Gentiles once the original apostles of Christ had gone. By the end of the first century conversions to Christianity would altogether cease to be from the “...lost sheep of the house of Israel” [Matthew 15:24] as Jesus had prescribed. Instead, the word of Christ would spread like wildfire amongst the far larger pagan population of the empire. The exclusively Jewish rebel movement would cease to exist by the end of the first century.

Building Upon Division

Constantine's Insight

Early Christian Unrest (Film: Agora)
Once in power, Constantine would unite the empire through a power consolidation within the growing, yet divided, Christian population. The phenomenally rapid spread of Christianity over the three centuries following Christ had outstripped the ability of church bishops to govern its gospel, rites and sacraments.

Subsequently, there were over a dozen Christian sects, some of which questioned or openly conjectured the very role of Christ and his divinity. The most widespread and flagrant followings were Gnosticism and Arianism. By 325 CE, upheaval within the Christian church created a number of early interpretive schisms, oftentimes ending in exile or death for the participants.

With Goths, Visigoths and Vandals advancing on the Western frontiers and Persia’s encroachments to the East, it had become clear to Constantine that he must consolidate and ride the growing wave of Christianity still further towards a more united empire, or lose his throne.

Ecclesiastical Structure

Defining Creed

Greatly contributing to the arrival and spread of division and subsequent new Christian sects was the formal lack of structure within the church. In fact, there was no “church” per se. Christianity was little more than a band of men spreading the Gospel (Greek: “good news”) throughout the empire. Whoever controlled the word of the Gospel controlled the church. Whoever controlled the church would eventually control the masses.

Pope Sylvester I and Constantine
Therefore, Constantine sought out the closest thing Christianity had to a leader, the Bishop of Rome, Pope Sylvester I. Constantine persuaded Sylvester to approve an imperial council to be formed to instigate the creation of singular canon within the church. Sylvester agreed and mandated attendance by all church bishops throughout the empire. Not able to attend himself, Sylvester sent two trusted legates of his own to approve all the council’s decisions.

Chi Rho
Earlier on, Constantine had his soldiers paint the Chi Rho of Christ on their shields and been victorious at the Battle of Milvian Bridge. Subsequently, he had been swept into power with the growing movement. By the time of the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, Constantine was regarded as a type of saint, if not a sword bearing savior, to a hitherto persecuted faith. Therefore, as emperor and author of the Edict of Milan, which legalized Christianity, it seemed only natural for him to sit at the council’s head.

The council would confirm the deity of Christ while firmly formulating trinitarian belief. This and the establishment of firm guidelines would provide the church with structure and rules heretofore absent, thereby creating a firm foundation for the creation of church canon (the formulation of which would continue for centuries). However, most important to its survival was the identification and elimination of rogue beliefs tearing at the heart of the fledgling church. Through word of mouth and gathered writings, the bishops would debate and eventually agree upon which sects were not in line. Those beliefs were then identified and considered heretical. Subsequently, Constantine ordered Arian and Gnostic texts to be symbolically burnt at that council before his throne. Guidelines were then created from agreed upon principal beliefs, which were then formulated into rule of church, the Nicene Creed.

Imperial Transformation

From Persecuted to Persecutor

The Council of Nicaea had united pope and emperor in a common cause, saved Christianity from further division (at least on the short term), and solidified Constantine’s throne through acceptance and support from what was rapidly becoming the empire’s dominant religion. It had also, for the first time, created a formalized church with guidelines and governances. Moreover, the Emperor appeared to have adopted the faith, implying imperial support in all Christian matters.

In just 50 more years, Emperor Theodosius I would make Christianity the empire’s state religion with the Edict of Thessalonica, replacing polytheistic beliefs and further paving the way for total religious singularity with implied government support for persecutions within the church. The tables had certainly turned from persecuted to persecutor.

Collapse of the Western Empire

The Roman Empire continued to flourish within the Greek speaking Eastern Empire. Consequently, the ancient Greek city of Byzantium was rebuilt and renamed “Constantinople” (today's Istanbul). Once Emperor Constantine made it his home it also became the empire’s new capital city (between 324 and 330 CE).

Heretical Invaders

Romulus Augustulus resigns the Crown
However, within a little more than a century, in 476 CE, Germanic forces lead by Odoacer would depose the last Western Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus. Odoacer belonged to the Arian Christian sect, which had been condemned as heretical by Constantine and the Council of Nicaea a century earlier. Bysantium could do little to aid the collapsing West, as they were dealing with Persian raids of their own from the East, which by then was escalating into the first Sassanid War of 502 CE The invading Persians at that time were practicing Gnostic Manichaeism, the largest Gnostic Christian sect to survive the Council of Nicaea and the subsequent Edict of Thessalonica.

Jesus Cleansing a Leper
It's ironic that the Roman Empire, which had conquered the Greeks and was subsequently influenced by Alexander the Great, Greek Hellenistic religion, literature, art, philosophy, and military achievements would eventually have their seat of government migrate to the ancient Greek City of Byzantium.

Also ironic was the Edict of Thessalonica which would eventually have future emperors, magistrates and soldiers placed into the same persecuting positions as earlier times, like those of Nero and Diocletian, only this time with Christians cheering on the slaughter.

Then there were the later invading hordes, many of which were Christian converts from the furthest reaches of early missionaries, like those of Saint Paul. However, these were Christians without a formalized church that had lost their way, sects that had developed beyond the reaches of the Pauline Epistles into what eventually resulted in heretical condemnation.

It all seems so perplexing and to some extent comical, when compared with Christ's simple mission to care for the poor, feed the masses, heal the sick and stand up against tyranny. "...blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." Nicene 

Go to:  Chapter 4) Post-Nicene Lapses and Aftermath  

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