The fourth century was a time of political and social unrest, as the western Roman Empire was taken over by a quick succession of military leaders (one of the better-known being Constantine). In those politically tumultuous times, there was additionally a very important social change going on – the change from a largely pagan society with a small minority of Christians to a society in which the mandatory state religion was Christianity and paganism was being persecuted by the Christians who had so lately been the ones being persecuted. However, the Christianity of the late fourth century had not transformed the Roman culture; instead it had adapted itself to fit the mold of Roman society. This had required some change in Roman doctrine (such as moving from a pantheon of gods to a monotheistic religion), but the greater change was in Christian theology.
Christian philosophy adopted Greek methods of thought and explanations of doctrine through the rise of the apologists. “The Christian Apologists were a new breed of converts … [who] had known the advantages and privileges of citizenship, even of power, in the empire. They were well-educated, professional, acquainted with the subtleties of Greek philosophy.” The Christianity developing in the fourth century was not the Christianity of the Early Church but instead a new kind of Christianity: one that had adapted to the culture it found itself so unexpectedly ruling. The Roman Empire was a culture in which newly converted pagans were attempting to fit their lifestyles into their new religion; a culture that for centuries had placed reliance on virtue and thought and tradition, and was now being heavily influenced by a monotheistic religion. Instead of transforming every aspect of their lives, these pagans – some of the most influential being Roman aristocrats who just wanted to keep the Emperor’s favor and their wealthy lifestyle – adapted those parts of their life which were absolutely necessary for conversion to the accepted religion, went through a hasty catechumenate, and stepped into their new religion to keep the peace just as Romans had done for the last thousand years. At all costs, the Pax Romana must be kept – and if this involved an allegiance to a new god, it certainly was not the first time Romans had done such a thing. The fact that this time it was Christianity did not mean that the nature of Roman society had changed all that much.
Christian and Roman societies
The early Christian church, beginning in a provincial part of the Roman Empire and quickly spreading throughout the Mediterranean world, did not at first glance have much to set it apart from any number of other mystery cults which were currently flourishing in the Empire. Pagans viewed these mystery cults with suspicion on account of their closed-door practices, but the idea of Pax Deorum – the peace of the gods – was enough for most Romans to simply ignore other religions. There were notable exceptions, and the names of some of the emperors who did execute heavy persecutions are well known. For the most part, though, the attitude of the Roman government and people can be summarized in Pliny the Younger’s letter to Trajan and the emperor’s reply: essentially, so long as the Christians were not causing trouble and threatening a disturbance of the peace, there was no need to actively hunt them down. Peace was the main concern, not any kind of ideological warfare against a certain belief.
Christianity’s monotheism was viewed with suspicion and fear of danger that this religion would break down the standards of civilization and push for something that was not only unhealthy for society but would also harm the structure established in tradition and excite the wrath of the gods. “The old polytheism was somehow built into the fabric of society, and to challenge it could sound dangerously like revolution and a loosening of the bonds of custom and morality.” The fact that Roman society was pagan should not be taken in any way to mean that they were non-religious; on the contrary the Romans were deeply religious and took the utmost care that they not anger the gods or do anything that might cause the breakdown of the success of Rome – believed by many to be a sign of the favor of the gods.
The culture even during the reign of Diocletian was becoming infiltrated with Christians: “the traditional pagan governing class … [was] in danger of being outbid by the new, ‘middle-brow’ culture of the Christian bishops, whose organizing power and adaptability had been proved conclusively in the previously generation [during the persecutions]”. Yet even in at this time, before Christianity was legalized, the focus was still on keeping peace – the emperor Diocletian, for instance, was a “sincere … Roman traditionalist; yet he ruled for nineteen years without giving a thought to the Christians” The philosophy of the Greek world was finding ways to express itself that were compatible with the new religion that was slowly taking root. The laid back attitude of this culture allowed Christianity to take root and flourish, since it was not a society that strongly held to a certain exclusive ideology. So long as one group’s religion did not threaten another, there was not a problem and certainly no need to cause a fuss that might disturb the gods. “In the fourth century, there were many families … for whom the ‘crisis’ of the third century had meant little, and the conversion of Constantine nothing.”
Christianity was legalized in the Empire under Constantine, who had found “a new and powerful God, who had favoured him [;]… at all costs Constantine [believed he] must keep on the right side of Him. Anything which would upset the proper worship of this ultra-powerful deity could not be tolerated.” Later, in the Theodosian Code, the Emperor Theodosius shows this lingering mentality, even in a society where Christianity was being made the only, compulsory religion: “There shall be no opportunity for any man to go out to the public and to argue about religion or to discuss it or to give any counsel. If any person hereafter, with flagrant and damnable audacity, should suppose that he may contravene any law of this kind or if he should dare to persist in his action of ruinous obstinacy, he shall be restrained with a due penalty and proper punishment.” And so the pagans, while objecting to the things about Christianity that they thought would cause the gods to be angry with them and therefore sporadically persecuting the Christians, did it not out of a certain malice but instead for a measure of protection, as if to prove that they really were trying to keep the peace. “One of Constantine’s main aims [after his conversion] was to see that the Empire and the imperial dynasty continued to receive God’s blessing” –a clear continuation of Roman tradition and not specifically Christian as much as it was a play for military success, which success was imperative if Constantine was to keep his throne.
Beginnings of absorption of culture
As is the case with all humans, the people who lived in the fourth century Roman world and their religious convictions were a part of their culture. “The ruler worship of the ancient world did not cease with Constantine’s conversion. It was transmuted into the liturgical homage the Church accorded Christian emperors. If Christ became an Emperor, emperors and kings were invested with divine Grace. There was no clear separation of the divine and human spheres.” Constantine set the trend for Christianity to be the replacing religion, giving the traditional religious gifts to Christian basilicas instead of pagan temples, gifts to bishops instead of priests, etc – and accepting Christianity, at least as a religion, if not necessarily the only one. This integration of Christianity into everyday life – not a transformation or conquest, but a morphing of culture into a Romanized Christianity – was a new practice adopted by Constantine and copied widely after him by those who wanted to maintain his favor. Christianity was incorporated all throughout the society and into the upper classes in ways that looked strikingly Roman; by the late fourth century “the Catholic Church had taken on the sharp contours of a closed aristocracy … treating themselves as a superior elite” just as the church under Constantine and afterwards was increasingly an experiment to see what happened when a religion that was not set up to lead a government, much less an empire, was suddenly the predominant (and later compulsory) religion.
Integration of theology and philosophy
One of the first things that had to happen in order for this development to take place was that the basics of philosophy had to match up with the theology of the accepted religion. “Many of the existing cultural and social forms and customs had to be adapted, and they transformed only very gradually.” It would not do to have the majority of the people believing that there was a pantheon of gods who were looking after them (or out to get them) while citing a religion that had only one God. Philosophers set to work tweaking philosophy to fit this new religion – again, making the entire transition as smooth as possible; no need to be complicated and disturb social order.
With state favor on the Christian religion, the people who still wanted government handouts were increasingly drawn to this new religion – but they were still Romans too. There was a rise of Christian thinkers for the purpose of holding the civilization and theology together, modification of Christian thought by influence of Greek philosophy, and a general metamorphosis of the Mediterranean culture from a pagan culture dominating and an underground Christian culture spreading to one civilized culture that could take the elements of classical philosophy and combine them with Christian thought.
The culture that sprang from this kind of thought was one that had not fused two distinct lines of thought together, but one that had drawn on the cultural, political, religious, and social factors present in the fourth century and created a new culture. This new combination was Christian in name and individually had many sincere believers, but as a whole consisted of people who only knew Roman culture as a culture and who had no concept of what kind of life they would have if it wasn’t for being Roman and Christian together. Even before Christianity was legalized, the ‘Great Persecution’ starting in 302 was a ‘brutal shock’ to Christians who suddenly “found themselves officially outcastes in the society with which they had so strenuously identified themselves”. The thought of discontinuing being Roman on account of becoming a Christian was a preposterous idea – unlike the Early Church, which saw Rome as being the center of all evils, the fourth-century Christians simply saw Rome as being the capital of their citizenship, the historic place where the center of the world had stood for a thousand years. The Christian bishops had had an aristocratic education – indeed, many were of the senatorial class or other wealthy, and elite people – and reasoned both their faith and their giving like Romans. It would be a great injustice to the culture and beliefs of the people involved to claim that the fact that these converts were Roman did not influence the way they practiced and lived out their faith. On the other hand, the influence that Christianity had on the culture was more a redirection of wealth than a cultural revolution.
While there certainly were concessions that were made from the Romans, the major differences that came about were changes on the side of the Christians. An important one was on the issue of military violence – Christians initially “were not allowed to shed blood or torture anyone even when under orders. The same held true for Christians in the position of judges…. when society became almost wholly Christianized on the surface, it became inevitable and acceptable that Christians should assume all the burdens of law-and-order enforcement, including the use of violence on behalf of the safety of the empire, as long as the war could be considered morally justified and was conducted without barbarism”. In a culture that consisted increasingly of professing Christians, something had to change in either governmental structure or else religious practice – and in a situation concerning military and judicial rule, it was religion that changed.
The Greco-Roman culture in which Christianity originated was a pagan society accustomed to adapting to whatever the most acceptable, profitable religion was as a part of civilized life (since this was during the period of the end of the Empire and the early Roman virtues were waning). Once the emperor Constantine began showing particular favor to Christians, it was in the best interests of the rest of the aristocrats in power to follow along with the religion to get the benefits. The changes that were made in fourth-century Rome toward Christianity had threads of Christianizing society, but were primarily social forms. The pagans became Christians, but the church changed. Originally, there were small churches with closed congregations that met to strengthen and support one another. Now, floods of pagans came to large state basilicas led by bishops (aristocrats) who were looking for state approval from the rest of their culture, just as they always had. The changes in appearance of Christian philosophy in the fourth century reflects this transition, as converted philosophers attempted to justify the transition of Roma Aeterna into a Christian society. It was imperative for public image that it not appear that Rome had been wrong all along, and the issue of the favor of the gods had to be worked out and smoothed over. Therefore, while some of the vocabulary of the fourth century was Christianized, the major influence was in the other direction as the Christian-State alliance changed the way the Church functioned in society. As far as society was concerned, the vocabulary and some traditions changed – but the church as a state religion looked very different than the church as a persecuted religion, and thus Christianity was more compromised by the merging of societies than the Roman state.
Brown, P. (1971). The World of Late Antiquity. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.
Chadwick, H. (1993). The Early Church. London: Penguin Books.
Cunningham, A. (1982). The Early Church and the State. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
Fousek, M.S. (1971). The Church in a Changing World. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.
Hillgarth, J.N. (1986). Christianity and Paganism, 350-750. Philadelphia: University of
Smith, M.A. (1976). The Church Under Siege. Leicester: Intervarsity Press.
Westcott, B.F. (1909). The Two Empires. London: MacMillan and Co.
 A. Cunningham, The Early Church and the State, p. 9.
 B.F. Westcott, The Two Empires, pp. 56-57.
 H. Chadwick, The Early Church, p. 152.
 P. Brown, The World of Late Antiquity. p. 86.
 ibid., p. 21.
 ibid., pp. 115-116.
 M.A. Smith, The Church Under Siege, pp. 23-24.
 Qtd. J.N. Hillgarth, Christianity and Paganism, 350-750, p. 47.
 M.A. Smith, p. 24.
 J.N. Hillgarth, p. 89.
 M.S. Fousek, The Church in a Changing World, p. 14.
 P. Brown, p. 116.
 M.S. Fousek, p. 13.
 ibid., p. 16.
 ibid., p. 17.
 P. Brown, p. 86.
 M.S. Fousek, p. 18.
 H. Chadwick, p. 154.
 P. Brown, p. 44.
 M.S. Fousek, p. 22.