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Today we consider Gibbon’s explanation of how the Christians of Constantine’s century advanced their faith by taking active measures against paganism. As he makes his case, Gibbon also extends his unflattering portrait of the followers of the new faith, perhaps to weaken their successors in his own day.

Show Notes

I devoted my last podcast to chapter 15 of Edward Gibbon’s, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which remains one of the two most controversial chapters of his six-volume study of Rome. He entitles it “The Progress of the Christian Religion,” and its main organization is a discussion of five reasons Christianity succeeded in becoming the exclusive religion of the entire Roman Empire. I chose the subject not only because of its inherent interest but also because it can help visitors to Rome keep an important question in mind.

We sometimes overlook the most obvious things, but all visitors to Rome should be struck by the basic fact that Rome is a city of churches. There are sometimes three or four Roman churches within 150 yards of one another. Many are beautiful, and most were built in waves over the course of 1,300 years, when the population of the city was often less than 50,000 and rarely reached as high as 100,000; yet, in the heyday of Rome’s ancient empire, there were no churches at all, but rather temples, altars, and statues to pagan gods. Less obvious today, most of these old churches also had monasteries or convents associated with them, and their resident monks, nuns, and friars constituted a significant fraction of the city’s total population. How did it happen that a religion preaching meekness and humility, that had no armies, and that was often cruelly persecuted by the powerful authorities, somehow became the official and indeed the only religion of the Roman Empire and then went on to give shape to Europe over the next thousand years? It is tempting to say it was simply a miracle, but Gibbon resolutely avoids this conclusion and discourages this way of thinking, and his chapter 15 explains the Christian Revolution in human terms. His effort to explain why Rome is a city of churches doesn’t exhaust the subject, but his reasons challenge us to think about it.

In a later chapter, which he entitles “The Destruction of Paganism,” Gibbon takes up the active measures taken by the newly Christianized empire to destroy paganism once and for all. It is thus a natural complement to his account of Christianity’s rise. As we will see, is also tied to two other observable phenomena in Rome. One is the relative absence of surviving ancient monuments; the second is the remarkable presence of relics in the churches of Christian Rome. Relics are things venerated because they are associated with a saint or martyr, especially a body part; and they are openly and abundantly present in most Roman churches, a surprise to many visitors.

There is another connection between today’s subject, chapter 28, and the subject of the last episode, chapter 15. As it seems to me, at least, Gibbon wishes to describe not only the successes and policies of the early Christians but also their character, which he finds largely unattractive. His Chapter 15 paints the early Christians as intolerant, filled with missionary zeal, obsessed with sexual purity, overconfident that the world would end soon, too sure that they would be granted eternal life, and inclined to believe wild reports of miracles even without any evidence to support them. He thus casts a distinctly unflattering light on a formative part of what might then have been called “Western Civilization” and was often called “Christendom.” My suspicion is that by his vivid attributions of vices and credulity to the early Christians, Gibbon was trying to weaken the influence of Christian devotion in his own day. Opinions of the past can influence the future, which is a reason some people fight over what statues to erect and which to tear down. Gibbon did not target any statues, but I’m suggesting he did wish to tarnish the reputation of the dominant faith of the West by charging its early members with moral lapses and intellectual weakness.

I think the same of chapter 28. It adds to Gibbon’s five points about how Christianity triumphed over paganism, but it also deepens his strong suggestions that the adherents of the new faith were less than admirable.

Constantine was the first Christian emperor and the first to use the vast power of the imperial government to favor Christianity. Excepting Julian, all his successors continued this effort, and chapter 28 sketches the measures they undertook to seal Christianity’s triumph. Their policies add to the reasons Gibbon previously gave for the triumph of Christianity.

Of special importance was the emperor Theodosius, who ruled in the last two decades of the fourth century, Constantine’s century. Gibbon acknowledges that Theodosius did not go so far as to insist that every subject be baptized, on penalty of death, and he did not prohibit pagans from serving in the army or government, but he declared sacrificing and divination to be crimes of high treason and to be punishable by death. The family of the guilty party would also lose the house or estate where the violations took place, and fines could also be levied. His measures thus did not go after pagan beliefs directly, but they did prohibit the practice of ancient rituals. This then made the old pagan temples and altars useless, thus paving the way for their destruction or conversion to other uses.

Gibbon concludes his treatment of Theodosius with this sentence: “Such was the persecuting spirit of his laws, which were repeatedly enforced by his sons and grandsons, with the loud and unanimous applause of the Christian world.” When he says that “the Christian world” responded with “loud and unanimous applause,” his metaphors are exaggerations, but I think he sustains the point that one of the reasons behind the triumph of Christianity was the use of force by a powerful imperial government over a period of a century or so.

Other governmental measures preceded those taken by Theodosius. These included depriving pagan priests and Vestal Virgins of their former honors and income, and a number of statues and altars were dismantled. Gibbon pauses on the well-known case of the statue and altar of the goddess Victory, or Nike, which were removed from Rome’s Senate House. Accordingly, the goddess was no longer invoked to begin Senate sessions or enforce oaths.

It turns out that the general terms of the debate on the removal of this statue bear some similarity to the one that preceded the removal of a statue of Thomas Jefferson from the New York City Council Chambers at City Hall. It’s almost inevitable in such cases that the existing statue will be defended in terms of tradition, while new ideas will be declared to be better than the old ones. In the case of the Roman debate over Victory, it fell to a Senator named Symmachus to defend tradition: Rome had enjoyed great successes while respecting the traditional altars of the gods, he argued, and it was impossible to know what perils might ensue if a taste for innovation were now to prevail. Uncertainty recommends caution, so don’t toss the old statue out.

A powerful bishop from Milan, later canonized as Saint Ambrose, argued the contrary, and as might be expected, he pointed out that strictly defending tradition makes improvement impossible. If we had stuck to all past traditions, our customs would still be marred by the barbarism of past centuries, and the arts would never have advanced. Not all change is progress, but progress still requires change.

Of course, the difficulty is that we must identify correctly which changes will bring their promised fruit and which will not. The judge in this case was the emperor Valentinian, a Christian, and he decided in favor of what he took to be progress. While not believing in the old statue’s divinity, of course, Gibbon doubts that the new faith introduced a richer culture.

The emperors were almost all-powerful, and their opinions carried great weight. As one of my favorite political advisors puts it, words are never so persuasive as when they are spoken by someone able to do both great good and great harm. Hence when Theodosius asked a meeting of the Senate to decide between the worship of Jupiter and that of Christ, his stated opinions determined how the vote would go. The result, in Gibbon’s words, which I take to be metaphorical, is that “the gods of antiquity were dragged in triumph at the chariot-wheels of Theodosius.”

[In summarizing the final triumph of the new faith, Gibbon says the reluctant converts to Christianity “were gradually fixed in the new religion, as the cause of the ancient [religion] became more hopeless; they yielded to the authority of the emperor, to the fashion of the times, and to the entreaties of their wives and children, who were instigated and governed by the clergy of Rome and the monks of the East.” Resignation in the face of irresistible power seems to have been part of the story.]

Nor was it only the emperors who turned to the use of force. Zealous reformers wished to go further and root out the old superstition even more aggressively than the emperors were doing. Gibbon cites the case of St. Martin of Tours, who marched at the head of a body of monks that went about destroying the idols, the temples, and the consecrated trees within his extensive diocese. He adds the case in Syria of a bishop named Marcellus who resolved to bring down a temple of Jupiter within the diocese of Apamea. His attack failed at first because of the solidity with which the temple had been constructed. Eventually, however, he caused it to collapse by digging beneath it. He then turned his attention to unconverted villages and smaller temples in Apamea. He died a martyr’s death while supporting the faith by force of arms.

With just a few examples like these, Gibbon concludes that, “in almost every province of the Roman world, an army of fanatics, without authority, and without discipline, invaded the peaceful inhabitants; and the ruin of the fairest structures of antiquity still displays the ravages of those Barbarians, who alone had time and inclination to execute such laborious destruction.”

By referring to these Christian mobs as “Barbarians, who alone had time and inclination to execute such laborious destruction,” Gibbon makes the point that the barbarians usually blamed for the destruction of Rome, namely such Germanic tribes as the Goths and Vandals, did not have time or inclination to destroy Rome’s pagan shrines: they passed through Rome rather quickly, and they were searching for loot, not trying to drive demons out of their hiding places. But the early Christians, or some of them, did have the time and inclination to do just this, and Gibbon clearly wants to be sure his readers do not ignore this awkward part of Western history, that in some respects, the early Christians were more barbaric than the barbarians. He is sure to mention that some of these temples they destroyed were among the finest monuments of Greek and Roman architecture.

Gibbon’s melancholy conclusion is that after having been persecuted, the early Christians turned the tables and persecuted their rivals on a grand scale. They did so partly though the organs of the imperial government and partly by mob action. Worse for what it implies about the ways of the world we live in, their actions, at once zealous and well-organized, were effective and helped to secure the defeat of paganism.

It is beyond me to say whether Gibbon’s account captures the truth and the whole truth of the matter. For now, at least, I claim only that he is a serious author who raises a set of serious but often forgotten questions vital for understanding Rome and the Western world. The general lines of his account, if not every detail, receive support from scholars such as Kenneth Harl and Ramsay MacMullan. But on the other side, critics emerged as soon as Gibbon published his first volume, and Hilaire Belloc offers a spirited attack on at least some of what Gibbon has to say.[1]

I’m a little surprised that a journalist named Catherine Nixey recently wrote a New York Times bestseller based mostly on points she borrows from Gibbon and MacMullan, though her tone is even more energetically hostile to the early Christians than they are. It’s called, The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. It’s an easy read, but I don’t recommend it.

After tracing official and unofficial persecution as a way of explaining the final destruction of paganism, Gibbon concludes his chapter 28 with a three-page discussion of the Christian martyrs. I thought at first that the reason the subject arises here is that the martyrs were held to have led the fight to have Christianity recognized as the true faith, and that they were thus one of the reasons for the Christian triumph. But Gibbon does not mention that they contributed to the victory; he is above all concerned with the way the martyrs came to be worshiped by the early Christians and still are by Roman Catholics. He has again moved from the surprising causes of the Christian victory to the still touchier subject of its consequences. As he puts it here, the worship of the relics of martyrs is “a superstitious practice, which tended to increase the temptations of fraud, and credulity, [and] insensibly extinguished the light of history, and of reason, in the Christian world.”

So, Gibbon’s main charge is that the stories of miracles caused by the presence of relics were false and deeply harmful. He does not prove that they were false but stirs up doubts by highlighting how numerous and colorful were the claims made on their behalf. Even St. Augustine, whom Gibbon calls “grave and learned,” reported over seventy miracles attributable to the relics of one saint, St. Stephen. These included three resurrections from the dead, and all took place within the relatively small space of his own diocese, and Augustine claimed that many more such miracles occurred in other places owing to the same relics. Gibbon passes over the exciting details, but they are easily found in Book 22, Chapter 8 of Augustine’s City of God.

The importance of relics for Augustine is also shown in his other masterpiece, The Confessions, Book 9, chapter 7. He here reports on how Bishop Ambrose exhumed the bodies of two saints, marched them through Milan, and deposited them under the altar of the basilica. Along the way, Augustine says, “several persons who were tormented by evil spirits were cured, for even the devils acknowledged the holy relics,” and the sight of a blind man was immediately restored upon contact with the relics. This Ambrose, by the way, was the same bishop who successfully defended the removal of the statue and altar of the goddess Victory from the Roman Senate House, discussed above.

As for the harm in believing in relics, Gibbon notes that it invites fraud, for sellers have an incentive to claim that they possess relics, when they might just have random pieces of bone, cloth, or wood. Is there really a piece of the true cross in the orb on top of the obelisk in front of St. Peter’s, for example? Is there really a relic of St. Peter just beneath the high altar of the great basilica? But the far, far deeper problem is that the focus on relics encourages credulity, the habit of believing what you are told without testing it in any serious way. It destroys what in the modern period we call critical thinking, and in Gibbon’s more ominous terms, it “extinguished the light of history, and of reason, from the Christian world.” As it seems to me, at least, Gibbon understands his project as that of helping to restore the light of history, and of reason, in a western world no longer so thoroughly Christian.

Only at the very end of the chapter does Gibbon clearly connect it with the theme of how the Christians conquered. He charges that one way Christianity won converts was by distorting the original faith, by making it more superstitious. As he puts it,

The ministers of the Catholic church imitated the profane model, which they were impatient to destroy. The most respectable bishops . . . persuaded themselves that the ignorant rustics would more cheerfully renounce the superstitions of Paganism, if they found some resemblance, some compensation, in the bosom of Christianity. The religion of Constantine achieved, in less than a century, the final conquest of the Roman empire: but the victors themselves were insensibly subdued by the arts of their vanquished rivals.

In simpler language, the leaders of the Church paganized Christianity in order to make it more acceptable to the weaknesses of ordinary people. The cult of relics served this purpose, for it gave people something tangible to believe in, something that promised to help them overcome the risks and hardships of ordinary life, as a sort of talisman would do.

Note that in the passage just quoted, Gibbon refers to Christianity by the phrase “the religion of Constantine.” His point is that to spread the new faith and make it the official religion of the empire, Constantine and those who shared his goals had to change it: the religion of Christ then became “the religion of Constantine.”  Gibbon says of this altered Christianity that Tertullian and Lactantius would have gazed upon it with “astonishment and indignation,” for it represented a “profane spectacle” instead of the “pure and spiritual worship” of the earlier Christianity with which they were familiar.

So here, at least, Gibbon presents himself as sympathetic with the faith in its original purity, which also allows him to attack the Catholic Church and imply sympathy with the Protestants, who did not worship the saints or their body parts. It’s not Gibbon the anti-Christian; it’s Gibbon the anti-Catholic.

[1] Gibbon and the True Cross, Author(s): Hilaire Belloc.  An Irish Quarterly Review , Jun., 1918, Vol. 7, No. 26 (Jun., 1918), pp. 210-226                 Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/30092654

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