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1st - 3rd century
4th century
     From persecution to preference
     Battle of the Milvian Bridge
     The first churches
     A new Rome
     Carthage and Donatus
     Alexandria and Arius
     Nicaea and orthodoxy
     Emperor and bishop

5th century
6th - 10th century
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14th - 15th century
16th century
17th - 18th century
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From persecution to imperial preference: AD 303-324

The emperor Diocletian, tolerant of Christians for almost twenty years after coming to power in 284, suddenly decrees in 303 that all churches are to be destroyed, all sacred texts and precious liturgical vessels confiscated, and meetings for worship forbidden. It is the beginning of a brief period known in Christian history as the Great Persecution.

The story goes that an immediate cause is the failure of the Roman soothsayers, at a solemn ritual in the emperor's presence, to find any of the usual signs in the entrails of the sacrificed animals. They claim, in their own defence, that some Christians secretly made the sign of the cross during the ceremony - with inauspicious consequences.


More probably the reason is a belief, fuelled by Diocletian's energetically pagan co-emperor Galerius, that the traditional virtues of Rome are threatened by Christianity. The persecution escalates later in 303 with the arrest of all Christian clergy (the prisons cannot accomodate them, and many are released). In 304 all citizens of the empire are ordered to sacrifice to the Roman gods on pain of death.

The persecution is only carried out consistently in the east, where Diocletian and Galerius rule. In Spain, Gaul and Britain, ruled by Constantius, no Christian is executed. And soon, with Constantine (the son of Constantius), the pendulum swings decisively in favour of the Christians.


Battle of the Milvian Bridge: AD 312

A mysterious decision by Constantine in October 312 can be seen now as one of the great turning points of history. He is camped just north of Rome, about to do battle with his rival for control of the western empire. He decides that his men shall wear on their shields a Christian symbol - the monogram known as the Chi-Rho, formed from the first two Greek letters of the word Christ.

Constantine wins the battle of the Milvian Bridge. His rival dies fleeing back over the Tiber when a bridge of boats collapses. In Constantine's mind he has won this crucial engagement in alliance with the god of the Christians. The results are dramatic.


Formally acknowledged by the senate as the Augustus of the west, Constantine immediately takes steps to favour the persecuted Christians. He restores confiscated church property and offers public funds to churches in need. In AD 313 he arranges a meeting in Milan with Licinius, one of two claimants to the title of Augustus in the east. He persuades him to follow the same policy.

Later in that year Licinius defeats his rival in the east. He too now proclaims a policy of religious toleration, offering compensation to the Christians for the wrongs done to them.


Within a year or two of suffering severe persecution, the Christians suddenly find themselves a favoured group within the empire. They win tax concessions, and Roman basilicas are constructed for their use as churches. There are career advantages within Constantine's administration if one is a professing Christian. Conversions follow.

But Licinius is less fully committed to the cause. In 320 he reverts to a mild persecution, dismissing Christians from the army and the civil service. Constantine marches against him, in 324, and again the Christian banner is victorious. Licinius surrenders after a defeat near Byzantium. A year later he is executed on a charge of attempted rebellion.


The first churches: AD 312-337

Concrete evidence of the new status of Christianity is seen in the emergence of the first church buildings. The change is most visible in Rome, the strongest Christian community. Until now, in spite of the size of the congregation of Christians in Rome, worship has been conducted discreetly in private houses. Suddenly churches become public buildings, city landmarks as prominent as the temples of the pagan cult.

Some of the churches evolve from the private houses already in use for worship; one such example is SS. Giovanni e Paolo in Rome. Others in the capital city are new and more striking foundations.


Constantine establishes three important churches in Rome. One, intended to be the city's cathedral, is sited immediately beside his own Lateran palace - already presented to the Christians as a residence for the pope. This church is St John Lateran.

The other two churches of Constantine in Rome are built in honour of the city's two martyrs, Peter and Paul, on the supposed sites of their graves. One is outside the old city and is called S. Paolo fuori le Mura (St Paul Outside the Walls). The other, in the Vatican, is St Peter's. Both have since been rebuilt.


A new Rome: AD 330

Constantine, now in firm command of the entire Roman empire (the first man for a long while to be in that position), is planning another initiative as significant as his adoption of Christianity. Immediately after the defeat of Licinius he sets about rebuilding Byzantium as a Christian capital city - one in which pagan sacrifice, the central rite of imperial Rome until this time, is specifically forbidden.

The city is ready by AD 330 for a ceremony of inauguration. Byzantium acquires two new names - New Rome and Constantinople, the city of Constantine. The Roman empire, within eighteen years of Constantine's first victory, has a new religion, a new centre of gravity and a significant change of culture.


Carthage and Donatus: AD 313-316

With the reckless enthusiasm of a convert, Constantine flings himself from the start into the various controversies dividing the Christian church.

The first issue, confronting him as soon as he wins power, has more to do with ecclesiastical politics than with heresy. The church in Carthage is squabbling over who shall be its bishop. A puritanical faction claims that the official nominee was a collaborator with the Roman authorities during the persecution of AD 303. They propose in his place a cleric by the name of Donatus, and in 313 they appeal to Constantine.


Constantine asks the pope in Rome and three bishops to look into the matter. They find against Donatus, whose followers appeal against the verdict. The emperor, wishing to appear open-minded, summons more than 300 bishops to Arles to consider the case. They too find against Donatus. In 316 the Donatists appeal directly to Constantine himself. He upholds the finding and orders that Donatist priests be removed from their churches.

Persecution provides martyrs and martyrs nourish sects; the Donatists will remain a thorn in the side of the north African church for the next three centuries. But Constantine has acquired a dislike of dissent. And soon he is confronted with a far more disruptive schism in Alexandria.


Alexandria and Arius: AD 323-325

The heresy associated with the name of Arius, a priest in Alexandria, is the most significant in the history of Christianity. It concerns the mystery at the very heart of the religion - the Trinity.

The problem for the early church has been that the Gospels talk of God and of Jesus (who describes God as his Father) and, more occasionally, of the Holy Spirit. But they do not explain how they relate to one another. All three seem to be divine, and yet - as a sect of monotheistic Judaism - early Christians know for sure that they worship only one God. How can this be? The concept of the Trinity, three in one and one in three, gradually emerges as the best answer. But it begs many questions.


Only if the three are equal can they be aspects of one god. Yet if God creates Jesus, he clearly has some sort of priority. On the other hand if God does not create Jesus, he can hardly be his Father. This is the problem which concerns Arius, who asks in particular whether there was ever a time when God existed but Jesus, as yet, did not. He concludes that there was such a time ('there was when he was not'). Jesus is therefore less than fully divine.

Even so, Arius agrees that it is right to worship Jesus. This reopens the door to polytheism, and in 323 the bishop of Alexandria dismisses his troublesome priest. The dispute rapidly escalates. In 325 Constantine intervenes, summoning a council at Nicaea.


Nicaea and orthodoxy: AD 325

More than 200 bishops, mainly from the eastern parts of the empire, arrive at Nicaea for the council. They meet in Constantine's palace, and the emperor himself presides over many of the discussions. His authority is purely political; though an undoubted supporter of Christianity, he has not yet been baptized.

The alarming presence of the emperor helps the bishops to reach a conclusion more emphatic than is justified by the range of their opinions. The crack opened wide by Arius seems to be firmly closed when it is announced at Nicaea that the Father and the Son are of the same substance (homo-ousios in Greek).


The doctrine that Jesus Christ is 'of one substance with the Father' features in the Nicene Creed - the statement of belief agreed at Nicaea which eventually becomes the shared faith of nearly all Christian denominations. It specifically denies the doctrine of Arius, who, along with many of his supporters, is sent into exile from Nicaea. For good measure the council adds a resounding list of Arian ideas which are anathema.

But heresy is not so easily stamped out, particularly on such a perplexing matter. The bishops at Nicaea would be astonished to learn of the future spread of Arianism, carried improbably far and wide by Germanic tribesmen and remaining an affront to the orthodox for another three centuries.


The Nicaean bishops would also be surprised to know how assertive one of their own kind would be, in relation to a Roman emperor, before the end of the century. In 325 imperial support for Christianity is still a new and somewhat improbable privilege, not much more than ten years old. Moreover the powerful ruler who gave it, and who could equally well take it away, is among them at Nicaea. It would take a very bold bishop openly to criticize the emperor Constantine.

And it still takes a very bold bishop, sixty-five years later, to criticize the emperor Theodosius - a strong ruler who uses the power of the state to impose Christian orthodoxy, after a period of pagan revival and persistent heresy.


Christian emperor and Christian bishop: AD 379-390

Theodosius becomes the eastern emperor in AD 379 and rapidly settles the religious splits within the empire by declaring pagan worship and Christian heresies (such as Arianism) to be illegal. A law of 380 orders all citizens to subscribe to the Catholic doctrines agreed under the chairmanship of Constantine the Great at the Council of Nicaea in 325.

A close link between church and state, with the state giving the lead, becomes a characteristic of the eastern or Byzantine empire. But Theodosius discovers, in a famous clash, that western bishops have authoritarian ideas of their own.


The cleric who sets a high standard for the western church in its relationship to the secular powers is Ambrose, bishop of Milan. In AD 390, when Theodosius is in Milan, there is a riot in Greece by supporters of a popular charioteer. A city governor is killed, and Theodosius sends orders for a brutal reprisal.

The charioteer's fans are invited into a circus for a special performance. Then the gates are locked. More than 5000 are slaughtered by troops in a massacre lasting three hours.


When news of the atrocity reaches Milan, Ambrose refuses to give communion to the emperor unless he does public penance for the crime. Theodosius at first stays away from church. But eventually he appears, bare-headed and wearing sackcloth in place of his sumptuous imperial robes. He repeats the performance on several occasions before Ambrose relents, finally giving his emperor the sacrament on Christmas Day.

In the threat of excommunication the western church discovers a powerful weapon for dealing with wayward rulers.


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