Edward Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” advances five causes for the early Christians’ triumph over their pagan and Hebrew rivals.  This podcast discusses them.

Show Notes

Past episodes have used two of Rome’s most popular tourist attractions as visible reminders of controversies regarding the Emperor Constantine and the revolution of Rome from paganism to Christianity. One of these is the Arch of Constantine, erected to honor his victory at the Milvian Bridge; the other is the Hall of Constantine, painted over a thousand years later by Raphael and his workshop to represent this same battle. The older monument shows Constantine in the traditional guise of a Roman and pagan conqueror; the later one shows him conquering for the Christian God and by means of His support, and it adds the claim, utterly alien to both the arch and to all historical reports,[1] that Constantine had himself baptized by the pope and surrendered political authority to him. As previously noted, Constantine is rightly remembered for having ended the persecution of Christians once and for all, and also for having actively promoted the spread of the faith and of the organization that supervised it. He even helped to shape this organization, as by his supervision of the Council of Nicaea, for example. But in having Constantine depicted as getting on his knees before the pope and surrendering to him a vast grant of political authority, the popes who commissioned the paintings chose to be guided by fable, not history.

It is agreed that Constantine did much to support the new faith, and that his successors were even more energetic in this regard, but his motives remain a matter of dispute. For some, he was a willing vehicle for the transformation of history by a providential God, or at least he believed he was. For others, he was a wily and ruthless leader who used the new faith and its church as a means of stabilizing control over a fractured empire.

The contrasting messages of the Arch and the Hall of Constantine offer an example of the way the art and monuments of Rome are in conversation or are at odds with one another. Noting such discord raises crucial questions and can keep a visit from Rome from sinking into a mere accumulation of one fact after another. But our focus on visual evidence should not keep us from seeing that books remain an indispensable resource. With this in mind, I’ll today turn away from particular sites in Rome to explore a written account of how the Roman Empire became Christian. I’ll anchor my comments to a single important text, namely, the best-known and most controversial chapter of the seventy-one chapters of a six-volume work entitled The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Published during the decade that separated the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and the ratification of the United States Constitution, this famous and infamous history was written by an impressive traveler to Rome who claimed to have conceived the idea for it while sitting on the Capitoline Hill. What he saw there was monks singing Vespers in the remains of the Temple of Jupiter, which caused him to reflect on the relationship between pagan Rome and Christian Rome, which he found to be at odds with one another on fundamental points. The traveler and author, of course, was Edward Gibbon.

Highlighting Gibbon also offers a good opportunity to call attention to one of my main themes, namely, the way so many modern thinkers have challenged the Christian understanding. During the most Christian centuries, it was natural to imagine human events as being inseparable from God’s plan: God wished for the true faith to spread, for example, so he sent a message to Constantine and supported him in battle. But in and after the Renaissance, and especially in the Enlightenment, the causes of historical change were sought in the opinions and actions of men and other matters more immediately intelligible to human reason. Gibbon calls explicit attention to this change, so spending time with him will help us to recognize that the modern approach, which we often take for granted, was once overshadowed by a theo-centric way of explaining events. In brief, Gibbon is the first historian to treat the Christianization of Rome exclusively in human terms. He does not go so far as to deny explicitly that Divine providence might be the first or ultimate cause of the triumph of Christianity, but he announces his intention to explain it in terms of secondary causes, that is, by human and natural events.

At about eighty pages, the chapter is long enough to give us a useful sample of Gibbon’s work, while it is short enough to give me a shot at summarizing some of its main ideas in a single podcast. I’m to blame if I don’t summarize well, but the ideas are Gibbons, not always mine.

Using visible evidence in Rome as my guide, I have so far stressed only Constantine’s contributions to the Christianization of the Roman Empire, but Gibbon will take us much farther.  He lists and discusses the following five reasons for the Christians’ victory:

  1. The Christians’ zeal in spreading their faith
  2. Their attractive promise of life after death
  3. The claim of miracles performed by the Church
  4. The early Christians’ pure and austere morals, and
  5. The unity and organization of the Church, “which gradually formed an independent and increasing state in the heart of the Roman empire”

Let me briefly explain each of these five points and then offer two interpretive comments.

Gibbon first notes the Christians’ energy in trying to spread their faith to others, and he contrasts this with beliefs which implied no such missionary zeal. The pagans were polytheistic, and their many gods always left room for adding still more. Though he wished she had not been chaste, it did not bother Apollo that Diana was a goddess, and it did not bother the Romans that Egyptians worshipped Isis. The Hebrews were a chosen people, and they did not seek to convert the other peoples of the world to worship the God who had chosen them. There was thus a certain toleration built into the pagan and Jewish religious alternatives. There were many gods divided up among many peoples. In Gibbon’s understanding, the polytheistic pagans were content to tolerate Christians who worshipped a new and different god, as they had already done in other cases.

The Christians’ faith, on the other hand, was universal and exclusive: it was not limited to a particular people, and it was not compatible with a world populated by other gods. The early Christians were thus appalled at pagan beliefs and practices and would not accept them. Since these beliefs and practices were interwoven throughout pre-Christian societies—in domestic, political, military, and cultural activities—Christian repugnance toward them was not confined to a mere part of social life; it amounted to a fundamental rejection of Roman society as a whole.

Perhaps “repugnance” is too weak a word, at least in Gibbon’s view, for the early Christians—so different from their descendants whom we know today—often believed that pagan idols and temples were inhabited by demons and that it was imperative to avoid all contact with these infernal spirits. Better, such infernal gathering places should be destroyed. As Gibbon puts it, the early Christians [QUOTE]

believed they were surrounded by a world populated by demons who represented a tangible threat to their own wellbeing and to the true faith. The temples of the old gods were not just reminders of pagan follies, they were also the homes of demons that had to be overcome and destroyed.

From the Christian point of view, the pagans were not only wrong about the nature of the world we live in; they were also guilty of active association with infernal forces. Coexistence was out of the question. To support his aggressive portrait of the early Christians, Gibbon often cites Tertullian, who has been dubbed as “the father of Latin Christianity.” His deep hostility to all things non-Christian is illustrated in the following:

[QUOTE] How shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many . . . fancied gods groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness; so many magistrates, who persecuted the name of the Lord, liquefying in fiercer fires than they ever kindled against the Christians; so many sage philosophers blushing in red-hot flames with their deluded scholars.

Nor does Tertullian limit the group whose brutal sufferings he gleefully anticipates: he also condemns ancient rulers, poets, tragedians, and dancers, and he seems to have been horrified by the literary and artistic masterpieces of antiquity, and by Euripides in particular.

Yes, Gibbon concedes, the pagans did persecute the early Christians, but—he says—not nearly as much as the latter say, and their cruel actions were provoked by the Christian attempt to constitute a separate and hostile state with the midst of pagan society.

Beyond the advantage of their zeal, the Christians also had an attractive doctrine, that of eternal life in heaven, which neither the Hebrews nor the pagans could claim with such confidence. The pagans had various conflicting stories about what happens to us after death, but they are hardly consoling. Hades was a grim and shadowy place by most accounts, and when Homer has his Odysseus visit Achilles in the underworld, the latter remarks that he would rather be a serf on earth than the ruler over all of Hades.

Christianity had a much more appealing doctrine, and it extended the promise of eternal life to all good Christians, regardless of sex, social position, or land of origin. By emphasizing the just rewards enjoyed in the next life, the Christians had an easy task of showing at least one clear advantage of their view over that of their rivals. The trick of winning converts is not so simple as making the biggest promises, however, so it is also important to wonder whether and why so many men and women believed this attractive doctrine to be true, especially if it represented such a sharp break from everything they had heard before. It may be in this connection that Gibbon stresses the related belief that the end of the world was then at hand, which added some urgency to making the right choice.

Gibbon’s third reason may help to explain why the Christians were able to believe in a glorious afterlife. The Church gained authority by the widespread belief that it was regularly performing miracles, including many cases of restoring the dead to life. If a miracle-wielding Church should announce that we can live forever in heaven, mere reason is not enough to prove it wrong. The pagans neither had a church nor were confident that they would be the beneficiaries of miraculous interventions. They made sacrifices, read entrails, and interpreted the flights of birds, but their confidence in their priests and their gods did not compare with that of the early Christians.

On behalf of Gibbon’s claim, I’d cite a striking passage from St. Augustine, when he explains the military successes of the Emperor Theodosius, who ruled at the end of Constantine’s Century, the Fourth. First, rather than trusting in a strategic analysis of his situation, which Augustine depreciates as [QUOTE] “a sacrilegious and unlawful curiosity,” he sent envoys to a hermit named John, who lived in the Egyptian desert. John promised him victory, so on these grounds Theodosius advanced and defeated his enemy “more by prayer than by the sword,” as Augustine puts it. Augustine finds further evidence for God’s miraculous support in a report given to him that all the enemies’ spears and arrows were blown back against them by a violent wind, so they ended up killing themselves. Theodosius followed up his victory by ordering the idols of the Gentiles to be everywhere smashed. You can find the story in Book V, chapter 26 of The City of God.

With such stories circulated by such impressive men as St. Augustine, it becomes understandable that many of the old Christians believed strongly in miraculous powers associated with their faith; and I, at least, don’t know of any Christian contemporaries who doubted bold claims of this variety.

Gibbon moves next to honor the Christians by attributing to them pure and austere morals. That they strove to act in accord with high moral standards impressed the witnesses evaluating the Christian alternative: It is certainly plausible that the ability to show superhuman courage, chastity, or charity would win the respect of onlookers, if they are not too cynical, and may even bring them into the group. Gibbon concedes to the Christians some remarkable moral feats, and grants as well that the ancient pagans were slow to help the poor and not particularly good at showing sexual restraint.

Gibbon’s last point focuses attention on the emerging organization and discipline of the Christian Church. Crudely put, it became well organized for battle against the less ardent and less united pagans. Although the earliest Christians rejected both private property and political organization, the bishops soon sat like monarchs in their domains. Later still, the Bishop of Rome made progress in establishing himself as supreme over the other Bishops, notwithstanding their resistance. The pagans had no such hierarchy, and this cost them.

So much for what I hope to be an accurate if brief summary of Gibbon’s fifteenth chapter, which takes up the question of how Christianity managed to prevail in its contest with paganism, Judaism, and other contenders for the dominant religion of the Roman Empire.

Let me now make two comments of my own. In the first I suggest that Gibbon here omits points important for his announced subject, although he does advance them in other parts of his long book. In the second, I suggest he takes up much more than his announced subject. In one sense he leaves things out. In another he brings other themes in.

Here in Chapter 15, Gibbon omits to discuss the weakening of paganism. Christianity’s main progress was in the fourth century, but by this point paganism was no longer in its prime. The wild stories of the misbehaving pagan gods were no longer fresh and engaging, at least as far as I can tell. It had been a thousand years since Homer had written and 300 since Virgil and Horace had told their stories. As Gibbon indicates elsewhere, there had been a certain erosion of belief over the ages, most interestingly because of the diffusion of more philosophic or rational ways of looking at the world. Greek philosophers had become the rage in Rome near the end of the Roman Republic, such that the poet Horace could say that although Rome had conquered the Greeks, Greek culture captured Rome; and Cato lamented the political and moral effects of the Romans’ discovery that philosophy knew how to attack justice as well as to defend it. Epicurus and Lucretius had taught rather openly that everything was matter in motion, and that pleasure was the only good, and these novel doctrines worked like acid on traditional opinions. How, after Greek rationalism had spread in Rome, could the Romans really believe that Mars had raped Rhea Silvia, who then gave birth to Romulus and Remus? Or that they then were nurtured by a she-wolf?

Gibbon indicates elsewhere that the spread of philosophical study weakened belief in the old stories of the gods, and I wonder whether he means to point to something similar happening in his own day, in the period we call the Enlightenment. Does he hint that his own writing have this intended effect, to weaken religion by promoting rationalism, though in this case the effect would be to weaken not paganism but its successor?

If Gibbon leaves the effect of rationalism out of his discussion, he also brings in themes of great importance without announcing them. His stated goal is to explain how Christianity managed to prevail over Paganism, Judaism, and other ways of understanding the cosmos and our moral duties, but as he carries out this mission, he also introduces serious charges against the early Christians.

In explaining the Christians’ remarkable energy in spreading their faith to new converts of all walks of life and all nations, for example, Gibbon leads his reader to see their zeal as intolerant. They were not just energetic; he finds them fanatical.

In explaining how the Christians’ beautiful doctrine of an eternal existence in heaven helped them to be victorious on Earth, he also makes it easy to doubt the truthfulness of this promise. Their promise was effective, but he implies that it was also groundless.

In noting the many miracles attributed to the Church and its adherents, he also gives various reasons for doubting that they ever actually happened. His doubt even extends to some of the core miracles announced in the Bible.

And in noting how impressive the early Christians were for their practice of such demanding virtues as chastity and charity, he invites his readers to wonder, first, whether their ideas on chastity weren’t a bit bizarre and, second, whether their arduous pursuit of exalted virtues did not lead them to nasty vices. As he thinks, at least, their “loss of sensual pleasure was supplied and compensated by spiritual pride.”

I do think Gibbon is trying to explain or demystify the early Christians’ surprising victory over all rivals, partly so that his readers then become less inclined to accept explanations that dignify the victory by attributing it to the will of God, as St. Augustine had done regarding Theodosius’s battle mentioned just above. But Gibbon’s larger theme is to evaluate the effects of the spread of Christianity, not just its causes, and in fact he holds Christianity to be at least partly responsible for the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Even as he explains how the Christian revolutionaries won, he shares his regret that they did so.

Thar’s it for an introduction to Gibbon and his famous or infamous 15th chapter. If nothing else, I hope this discussion fixes in our minds the magnitude of the transformation of the Roman Empire from pagan to Christian and helps us think about what might have caused it.

[1] I don’t consider the fabulous “Acts of Sylvester” (Latin: Actus Silvestri) to be a historical report.

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