2 - From Martyrs to Inquisitors (AD 250-450)
In 313, from the great imperial city of Milan, Constantine and his co-emperor Licinius despatched a series of flowery letters to provincial governors. The two rulers thought it 'salutary and most proper' that 'complete toleration' should be given by the State to anyone who had 'given up his mind either to the cult of the Christians' or any other cult 'which he personally feels best for himself. All previous anti-Christian decrees were revoked; Christian places of worship and other property seized from them were to be restored; and compensation provided where legally appropriate. The new policy was to be 'published everywhere and brought to the notice of all men'.
The so-called 'Edict of Milan', by which the Roman Empire reversed its policy of hostility to Christianity and accorded it full legal recognition was one of the decisive events in world history. Yet the story behind it is complicated and in some ways mysterious. Christian apologists at the time and later portrayed it as the consequence of Constantine's own conversion, itself brought about by the miraculous intervention of God before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge outside Rome, where Constantine defeated the usurper Maxentius. This was the story Constantine liked to tell himself, later in life. Bishop Eusebius, who informs us gloatingly that he was 'honoured with the Emperor's acquaintance and society', says he heard from Constantine's own lips that 'a most incredible sign appeared to him from heaven.' But there is a conflict of evidence about the exact time, place and details of this vision, and there is some doubt about the magnitude of Constantine's change of ideas. His father had been proChristian. He himself appears to have been a sun-worshipper, one of a number of late-pagan cults which had observances in common with the Christians. Thus the followers of Isis adored a Madonna nursing her holy child; the cult of Attis and Cybele celebrated a day of blood and fasting, followed by the Hilaria resurrection-feast, a day of joy, on 25 March; the elitist Mithraics, many of whom were senior army officers, ate a sacred meal.
Constantine was almost certainly a Mithraic, and his triumphal arch, built after his 'conversion', testifies to the Sun-god, or 'unconquered sun'. Many Christians did not make a clear distinction between this sun- cult and their own. They referred to Christ 'driving his chariot across the sky'; they held their services on Sunday, knelt towards the East and had their nativity-feast on 25 December, the birthday of the sun at the winter solstice. During the later pagan revival under the Emperor Julian many Christians found it easy to apostasize because of this confusion; the Bishop of Troy told Julian he had always prayed secretly to the sun. Constantine never abandoned sun-worship and kept the sun on his coins. He made Sunday into a day of rest, closing the law courts and forbidding all work except agricultural labour. In his new city of Constantinople, he set up a statue of the sun-god, bearing his own features, in the Forum; and another of the mother-Goddess Cybele, though she was presented in a posture of Christian prayer.
Constantine's motives were probably confused. He was an exceptionally superstitious man, and he no doubt shared the view, popular among professional soldiers, that all religious cults should be respected, to appease their respective gods. He clearly underwent a strange experience at some time in his military career, in which his Christian troops played a part. He was a slave to signs and omens and had the
Christian Chi-Rho sign on his shields and standards long before Milan. Superstition guided his decision to build a new capital, the choice of its site, and many other of his major acts of state. He was not baptized until his last illness. This was by no means unusual, since few Christians then believed in a second forgiveness of sins; sinful or worldly men, especially those with public duties seen as incompatible with Christian virtue, often delayed baptism till they were about to depart. But Eusebius's account of Constantine's late baptism is ambiguous; and it may be that the Church refused him the sacrament because of his manner of life. Certainly it was not his piety which made him a Christian.
As a young man, he had the imperial look about him. He was tall, soldierly, athletic, with strongly marked features, heavy eyebrows, a powerful chin. But there were early reports of his violent temper and his cruelty in anger. He was much criticized for condemning prisoners of war to mortal combat with wild beasts at Trier and Colmar and for wholesale massacres in north Africa. He had no respect for human life, and as emperor he executed his eldest son, his own second wife, his favourite sister's husband and 'many others' on doubtful charges. He was a puritan of sorts, passing laws forbidding concubinage, prostitution of inn servants, and the seduction of slaves, but his private life became monstrous as he aged. He grew fat, was known as 'the bull-neck'; he may even have suffered from goitre. His abilities had always lain in management, the operation of the mechanics of power; he was a professional arbitrator, a master of the eirenic phrase and the smoothly-worded compromise, but also overbearing, egotistical, self-righteous and ruthless.
The public-relations side of his job took over in later years. He showed an increasing regard for flattery, fancy uniforms, personal display and elaborate titles. His nephew Julian said he made himself ridiculous by his appearance - weird, stiff eastern garments, jewels on his arms, a tiara on his head, perched crazily on top of a tinted wig.
Bishop Eusebius, his fulsome eulogist, said Constantine dressed thus solely to impress the masses; privately, he laughed at himself. But this contradicts much other evidence, including Eusebius's own. Vain and superstitious, Constantine may have embraced Christianity because it suited his personal interests, and his growing megalomania. There was a Caesaro-papalist flavour about his regime. Many of his ecclesiastical arrangements indicate that he wanted a state Church, with the clergy as civil servants. His own role was not wholly removed from that of the pagan God-emperor - as witness the colossal heads and statues of himself with which he littered his empire - though he preferred the idea of a priest-king. Eusebius says he was present when Constantine entertained a group of bishops and suddenly remarked: 'You are bishops whose jurisdiction is within the church. But I also am a bishop, ordained by God to oversee those outside the church.' Constantine does not seem to have acquired any knowledge of Pauline theology but, again according to Eusebius, he apparently imbibed some of Origen's more grandiose ideas and secularized them, seeing himself as the chief divine instrument. Thus, said Eusebius, he 'derived the source of imperial authority from above'; he was 'strong in the power of the sacred title'. Constantine was especially beloved of Christ and 'by bringing those whom he rules on earth to the only-begotten and saving Word, renders them fit subjects for Christ's kingdom'; he is 'interpreter of the word of God', a 'powerful voice declaring the laws of truth and godliness to all who dwell on earth', 'the appointed pilot of the mighty vessel whose crew it is his aim to save'. God, said the Bishop, was the author of kingship, and 'There is one king, and his Word and royal law is one; a law not
subject to the ravages of time, but the living and self-subsisting word.'
Clearly, according to this analysis, Constantine, as emperor, was an important agent of the salvation process, at least as vital to it as the apostles. So, evidently, the emperor himself thought. Thus he had a tomb prepared for himself within the new Church of the Apostles he built and gloriously endowed in Constantinople, 'anticipating', says Eusebius, 'that his body would share the title with the apostles themselves, and that he should after his death become the subject, with them, of the devotions performed in their honour in this church.' His coffin and tomb, in fact, were placed in the centre, with monuments to six apostles on each side, making him the thirteenth and chief; and he contrived to die on Whitsunday.
How could the Christian Church, apparently quite willingly, accommodate this weird megalomaniac in its theocratic system? Was there a conscious bargain? Which side benefited most from this unseemly marriage between Church and State? Or, to put it another way, did the empire surrender to Christianity, or did Christianity prostitute itself to the empire? It is characteristic of the complexities of early Christian history that we cannot give a definite answer to this question. It is not at all clear why the empire and Christianity came into conflict in the first place. The empire extended toleration to all sects provided they kept the peace. Jewish Christianity may have been penetrated by Zealotry and Jewish irredentism, but the gentile Christianity of the Pauline missions was non-political and non-racial. Its social implications were, in the long run, revolutionary, but it had no specific doctrines of social change. Jesus had told his hearers to pay taxes. Paul, in a memorable passage, advised the faithful, while waiting for the parousia, to obey duly-constituted authority. As early as the mid-second century, some Christian writers saw an identity of interests between the burgeoning Christian movement, with its Universalist aims, and the empire itself. Christians might not yield divine honours to the emperor, but in other respects they were loyal Romans. Tertullian claimed:
'We are for ever making intercession for the emperors. We pray for them a long life, a secure rule, a safe home, brave armies, a faithful senate, an honest people, a quiet world, and everything for which a man and a Caesar may pray. ... We know that the great force which threatens the whole world, the end of the age itself with its menace of hideous sufferings, is delayed by the respite which the Roman Empire means for us ... when we pray for its postponement we assist the continuance of Rome. ... I have a right to say, Caesar is more ours than yours, appointed as he is by our God.'
By Tertullian's time (c. 200), as he pointed out, the Christians were numerous enough to overthrow the Empire, had their intentions been hostile: 'We are but of yesterday, and we fill everything you have - cities, tenements, forts, towns, exchanges, yes! and camps, tribes, palace, senate, forum. All we leave you with are the Temples!' Christians were, he urged, a docile as well as a loyal element in society.
And of course for the most part they were left alone. As a rule, the Christians, like the Jews, enjoyed complete freedom from persecution. The impression that they lived and worshipped underground is a complete fallacy, arising from the name (Catacombus) of one of their earliest cemeteries. They had their own churches, as the Jews had synagogues. They made no secret of their faith. From the earliest times, Tertullian says, they identified themselves: 'At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign of the cross.' There seems to have" been no attempt at concealment, strangers being invited to attend part of the Christian service, and to present themselves for instruction.
Yet there was from the start considerable prejudice, a form of anti-semitism which persisted even after Roman conformists had learnt to distinguish between Christians and Jews. Thus an anti-Christian writer c. 180 calls them 'people ignorant of learning, unlettered and unskilled in the meanest arts'. They Were 'a gang of discredited and proscribed desperadoes', formed from 'the lowest dregs of the population, ignorant men and credulous women'. At their 'nocturnal gatherings, solemn feasts and barbarous meals, the bond of union is not a sacred rite but crime'. They were 'a secret tribe that lurks in darkness and shuns the light, silent in public, chattering in corners ... and these vicious habits are spreading day by day ... . These conspirators must be utterly destroyed and cursed.' In this atmosphere of ignorance and prejudice, Christians became objects of suspicion and the victims of wild rumour. The Christians automatically placed themselves outside the law by refusing divine honours to emperors. Under weak and vulnerable rulers, like Caligula, Nero and Domitian, they became scapegoats for failure or disaster.
As Tertullian put it: 'If the Tiber reaches the walls, if the Nile failes to rise to the fields, if the sky doesn't move, or the earth does, if there is famine or plague, the cry is at once: "The Christians to the Lion!"' Prejudice was much stronger in the central and western Mediterranean than in the east, but certain rumours were current everywhere. The doctrine of the eucharist, under which 'flesh' and 'blood' were eaten, was understood to mean the practice of cannibalism. The 'kiss of peace' at Sunday services was also misinterpreted. Clement of Alexandria complained: 'There are those that do nothing but make the churches resound with a kiss, not having love itself within. This practice, the shameless use of the kiss, which ought to be mystic, has occasioned foul suspicions and evil reports.' There was a reference to incest.
The wilder Christians sects - later branded as heretics - naturally attracted more attention from critics and Roman officials. Writing from Bythinia in Asia Minor, a worried local governor, Pliny the Younger, asked for detailed instruction from the Emperor Trajan (98-117). Christianity, he reported, was spreading from the towns to the countryside. The temples were empty and it was becoming difficult to sell the meat from sacrificed animals. He was under local pressure to execute Christians. What was their crime? Should they be charged with incest and cannibalism, their reputed offences? If they remained contumacious then it was clear they had to be executed, but what if they recanted? Some admitted they had been Christians but denied their faith and cursed Christ. They made offerings to the emperor and the gods. But they also denied that Christians practised enormities. They did not eat murdered children: just food. And they had suspended their secret rites following an edict against religious societies. He had tortured two deaconesses, but found nothing but 'squalid superstition'. Severity undoubtedly brought people back to the temples. What should he do now? Trajan advised moderation. There should be no general inquisition. Anonymous informers should be ignored. Accusations from responsible folk should be properly investigated. No Christian should be punished if he made sacrifices.
This was the line usually followed by Roman governments. If they were strong and secure they were
less inclined to yield to prejudice. Undisavowed Christianity remained a capital offence, but government did not, as a rule, force Christians into the choice between avowal and apostasy. It left them alone. One reason why the Church strove for uniformity, and so against heresy, was that non-orthodox practices tended to attract more attention and therefore hostility. 'Prophesying', the great offence of the Montanists, was strongly disapproved of by the State. It caused sudden and unpredictable crowd movements, panic and disruption of the economy. We hear of early bishops in the Balkans leading their flocks out of the towns, or away from the fields, in response to spirit instructions. Rome could be severe with such people. Marcus Aurelius, a reasonable man, justified persecuting Christians by arguing that it was dangerous to upset 'the unstable mind of man by superstitious fear of the divine'. And then he disliked the 'sheer spirit of opposition' of Christians. The more obdurate were, of course, members of Christian revivalist groups, 'speaking with tongues'.
The great majority of the early martyrs were Christians of a type which the Church would later classify as heretic. The first stories of martyrs reflect not only Jewish martyrologies, as one might expect, but a form of literature echoing the defiant opposition of Greek rebels against Roman domination. The so- called 'Acts of the Pagan Martyrs', which survive in Egyptian papyrus fragments, glorify men able to defeat their Roman persecutors in intellectual dialogue - philosopher heroes smashing tyranny with words, even though they subsequently lost their heads. These became models for Christian nonconformists, openly challenging the might of the State. The Church took an increasingly severe view of provocative would-be martyrs. Ignatius, martyred at Rome around 117, begged his influential friends not to intervene and deprive him of suffering in the Lord; this attitude would have been regarded as heretical later in the century, when the saintly Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, set the pattern by doing nothing to provoke the authorities. The Church would not compromise on the matter of emperor-worship or the divinity of Christ, but otherwise it did not look for trouble.
There was no systematic persecution of Christians before the second half of the second century. The worst episodes were isolated incidents, as in the Rhone Valley in 177. Eusebius, who quotes from a contemporary letter, does not explain what set in motion this savage affair. The occasion was the annual summer gathering in the region for the payment of tribal taxes. Eusebius says that rumours were put about that Christians had been engaging in cannibal feasts and incest, the old tales; under pressure some of their household servants gave testimony to that effect. What followed was like a state-supervised riot. The letter speaks of 'the mighty rage of the heathen', 'the whole mass of the people', 'an infuriated mob'. Many Christians were tortured, in the stocks or in cells. Sanctus, a deacon from Vienne, had red-hot plates applied to his testicles - 'his poor body was one whole wound and bruise, having lost the outward form of a man'.
Christians who were Roman citizens were beheaded. Others were forced through a gauntlet of whips into the amphitheatre and then, before an audience composed largely of un-romanized tribesmen, given to the beasts. Severed heads and limbs of Christians were displayed, guarded for six days, then burned, the ashes being thrown into the Rhone. But there were regular interrogations and trials before the Prefect, Rusticus. Some Christians 'were manifestly unready, untrained and still weak, unable to bear the strain ... ten proved apostates'. This does not sound like an uncontrolled pogrom. One lady, Blandina, was the worst treated of all, 'tortured from dawn till evening, till her torturers were exhausted and ...
marveled that the breath was still in her body'. She was then scourged, roasted in the frying pan', and finally put in a basket to be tossed to death by wild bulls. Of course she was a mystic and a prophetess, probably a Montanist. If one reason why the Church branded such people as heretics was its fear of attracting persecution, then equally the State tended to strengthen the orthodox elements in the Church by concentrating its savagery on the antinomian elements among Christians.
By the middle of the third century, however, a much more critical period had opened. Christians were now far more numerous, better organized, and more homogenous in their views and practices. Once it had been possible to dismiss them for their lower-class credulity. The pagan propagandist Celsus, writing his True Word c. 180, claimed: 'Some do not even want to give or receive a reason for what they believe, and simply say "Do not ask questions: just believe", and "Thy faith will save thee". They say: "The wisdom of the world is evil" and "Foolishness is a good thing".' Celsus illustrates a Christian line of argument: 'Let no one wise, no one sensible, no one educated draw near. For we think these things are evils. But as for anyone ignorant, educated or stupid - anyone like a child - let him draw near.' This was of course a caricature of genuine Christian attitudes which could be traced back to Jesus. But as a portrait of the Church as a whole, it was ceasing to be true even when Celsus wrote. The class and education barriers came down and Christianity penetrated deep into circles which shaped secular policy and imperial culture. The age of Origen, of a Christianity which had achieved intellectual maturity in terms of the ancient world, made a direct and final confrontation with the State inevitable. It was now a Universalist alternative to the civil religion and a far more dynamic (and better organized) one; it had either to be exterminated or accepted.
The Decian persecution, around 250, marked the attempt to apply the first policy, which was continued at intervals until Constantine switched to the second sixty years later. State hostility was exercised universally, persistently, and in due legal manner. There was no longer mass-hysteria, simply relentless bureaucracy. Everyone had to obtain certificates proving he had made sacrifice to the official gods. Some of these have been recovered from sites in Egypt. Thus:
To the commission appointed to supervise sacrifices at the village of Alexander's Isle. From Aurelius Diogenes, son of Satabus, of the village of Alexander's Isle, aged 72 years, with a scar on the right eyebrow. I have always sacrificed to the gods and now in your presence in accordance with the edict I have made sacrifice and poured a libation, and partaken of the sacred victuals. I request you to certify this below. Farewell: I, Aurelius Diogenes, have presented this petition.'
There is no doubt that this and later persecutions were extremely effective. The blood of the martyrs, as Tertullian had claimed, might be the seed of the faith; but the property of the Church was a temptation to compromise. By 250, for instance, the Church in Rome was rich enough to support a bishop, forty-six presbyters, seven deacons, seven sub-deacons, forty-two acolytes and fifty-two exorcists, readers and doorkeepers; it had a charity list of over 1,500. State inventories show that vast quantities of goods were seized, gold and silver plate, precious ornaments and vestments, supplies of food and clothing, books and cash. Christian clergy might be more willing to surrender their lives than the Church's valuables. Cyprian, writing from Africa, said there was mass apostasy, led by bishops; multitudes flocked to the magistrates to make their retractions, 'spontaneously submitting to the commissions in charge of that
There was a general collapse of morale: 'Many bishops, who ought to have been an encouragement and example to others, gave up their sacred ministry, deserted their people, left the district, tried to make money, took possession of estates by fraudulent means, and engaged in usury.' Some of the faithful made state sacrifices but also continued as Christians; in Spain, for instance, we hear of Christians acting as civic priests. The Church was never able to adopt a uniform policy towards persecution. Thus there were acute divisions about the degree of compromise to adopt, not only between regions, but within them. Old schisms between 'revivalist' and 'official' Christians instantly reappeared and became inextricably mingled with doctrinal questions. Spasmodic persecution of Christian 'extremists' tended to strengthen orthodoxy in the Church, as we have noted, but blanket persecution, especially over a long period, weakened it in many ways, especially by undermining its unity.
However, the systematic harassment of huge groups within the empire also weakened the State, not least in the army, where Christians were numerous. The Decian persecution had to be called off when there was trouble on the frontier. Later edicts, c. 300, were never fully applied in the West for this reason. Then, too, actions against Christians were increasingly unpopular. Whereas, in the first and second centuries, official hostility was a response to anti-Christian feeling among urban mobs, from 250 onwards the State usually had to act alone, indeed against public criticism. There is an air of desperation about the last great wave of persecutions, conducted by Maximinus in 308-12. In Damascus, said Eusebius, the authorities 'seized the market-place whores, and under the threat of torture forced them to state in writing that they were once Christians and give evidence of orgies practised in Christian churches.' This deliberate attempt to revive old slanders suggests they had lost their potency. On the contrary, the Christians had long been recognized as a virtuous and essentially inoffensive element in the community. They were, of course, different. As the so-called Epistle to Diognetus puts it:
'They live in their own countries, but simply as visitors ... to them every foreign land is a fatherland, and every fatherland foreign. ... They have a common table, but yet not common. They exist in the flesh, but they do not live for the flesh. They spend their existence on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws and in their own lives they try to surpass the laws. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. ... They are poor, and make many rich. They lack everything, and in everything they abound. They are humiliated, and their humiliation becomes their glory. They are abused and they bless. They are reviled, and are justified. They are insulted, and they repay insults with honour.'
It was the Christian spirit of mutual love and communal charity which most impressed pagans. Tertullian quotes them as saying: 'How these Christians love one another!' And he adds that the funds which financed their charities were essentially voluntary: 'Every man once a month brings some modest com, or whenever he wishes and only if he does wish, and if he can - for nobody is compelled.' And the funds were spent 'not on banquets and drinking parties' but 'to feed the poor and bury them, for boys and girls who lack property and parents, and then for slaves grown old and shipwrecked mariners: and any who may be in the mines, on the penal islands, in prison ... they become the pensioners of their confession.'
The Christians had enormously expanded the old charitable trusts of the Jewish diaspora. They ran a miniature welfare state in an empire which for the most part lacked social services. The Emperor Julian, seeking to revive paganism in the fourth century, tried to introduce similar charitable funds for the poor. In a letter ordering imperial clergy to set these up, he noted: 'Why do we not observe that it is in their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead, and the apparent holiness of their lives that they have done most to increase atheism?' (I.e. Christianity). He thought it 'disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galileans support not only their own poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us'. Julian noted bitterly the important role played by Christian women. He told leading citizens of Antioch: 'Each one of you allows his wife to carry out everything from his house to the Galileans.
The wives feed the poor at your expense, and the Galileans get the credit.' Women played a much bigger part in the Christian charitable trusts than corresponding organizations in the Jewish diaspora; this was one reason why Christianity took over the old proselytizing role of Judaism, which now had ceased to expand. Christianity offered solid advantages to women. It treated them as equals in the eyes of God. It told husbands to treat their wives with as much consideration as Christ showed to his 'bride', the Church. And it gave them the protection of Jesus's unusually definite teaching on the sanctity of marriage. Women converts began the Christian penetration of the upper-classes and then brought their children up as Christians; sometimes they ended by converting their husbands.
But these factors alone would not have persuaded the State to reverse its policy and embrace its enemy. The truth is that during the large-scale anti-Christian operations of the second half of the third century, the State was obliged to recognize that its enemy had changed and had made itself a potential ally. In the long struggle to suppress internal division, to codify its doctrine and to expand its frontiers, Christianity had become in many striking ways a mirror-image of the empire itself. It was catholic, universal, ecumenical, orderly, international, multi-racial and increasingly legalistic. It was administered by a professional class of literates who in some ways functioned like bureaucrats and its bishops, like imperial governors, legates or prefects, had wide discretionary powers to interpret the law. It was becoming the Doppelganger of the empire. In attacking and weakening it, the empire was debilitating itself. For Christianity had become a secular as well as a spiritual phenomenon: it was a huge force for stability, with its own traditions, property, interests and hierarchy.
Unlike Judaism, it had no national aspirations incompatible with the empire's security; on the contrary, its ideology fitted neatly into the aims and needs of the universal state. Christianity had been carried towards the State by the momentum of its own success. Would it not be prudent for the State to recognize this welcome metamorphosis and contract, as it were, a manage de convenance with the 'bride of Christ'? Thus it would relinquish a state religion which seemed increasingly forlorn and required public support just to stay alive and replace it by a young and dynamic partner, capable of development and adjustment to underpin the empire with its strength and enthusiasm. Here lay the very mundane logic of Constantine's edict of toleration: he perceived that Christianity already possessed many of the characteristics of an imperial state Church.
But the position adopted by Constantine, of general religious toleration, was not tenable for long. Perhaps there was no such thing as religious equipoise in the ancient world. The empire, as it became less liberal, had found it impossible not to persecute Christianity. Now, having accepted Christianity, it found it increasingly difficult not to persecute its enemies, internal and external. The same compulsive forces were at work on the Church. The manner in which it transformed itself from a suffering and victimized body, begging for toleration, into a coercive one, demanding monopoly, is worth studying in some detail.
The problem really centres round the existence of a separate and exclusive clerical class. As we have seen, such a phenomenon was virtually unknown to the Church in its earliest stages, but became entrenched in the third century. Constantine, having recognized Christianity, having in effect decided to make it a buttress of his State, felt he had no alternative but to acknowledge the existence of a clerical class and provide for it accordingly. Of course there was nothing new in this. The emperor had been the Pontifex Maximus of the gods, just as he now considered himself a bishop. The pagan priests were paid state officials, who met once a week in conclave as an act of government; the vestal virgins travelled through the streets in veiled state carriages, and sat in an imperial box at the games. Constantine began the transfer of privileges to Christian clergy almost from the start, exempting them from compulsory public office (which was onerous and expensive) in the towns, and in non-urban areas from the payment of district taxes. This implied class status, the secular underwriting the spiritual. Indeed Constantine was the first to use the words 'clerical' and 'clerics' in this sense - and a generation later, the anti-Christian Julian was already using such terms in a pejorative sense.
Of course the favour of the State enormously increased the value of clerical status, and the desirability of office, particularly higher ones. The council held at Sardica in the Balkans in 341, for instance, tried to prevent transfers of bishops from one see to another, as 'a bad custom and a wicked source of corruption'. It noted severely: 'We don't find bishops wanting to transfer from a large see to a smaller one: all are aflame with the fires of greed, and are slaves of ambition.' The historian Ammianus, a pagan but fair-minded as a rule towards Christianity, drew the connection between disputed episcopal elections and the revenues of the see. Thus after the election battle between Damasus and Ursinus for the bishopric of Rome in 366, Ammianus says that 137 bodies were found in a church - on the site of what is now St Maria Maggiore. Naturally, he adds, such things happened, since once in office, the bishops of Rome:
'are free from money worries, enriched by offerings from married women, riding in carriages, dressing splendidly, feasting luxuriantly - their banquets are better than imperial ones. But they might be really happy if, despising the vastness of the city, in which they can hide their faults, they lived like provincial bishops, with harsh abstinence in eating and drinking, plain apparel, eyes cast to the ground - proclaiming themselves pure and reverent men to the everlasting deity and his true worshippers'.
The Sardica canons also indicate that the rich and well-connected were making their way into the Church purely for material advancement. They lay down: 'If a rich man, or lawyer, or state official be offered a bishopric, he should not be ordained unless he has previously acted as a reader, .deacon or
priest, and so rises to the highest rank, the episcopate, by progressive promotion ... ordination should only be conferred on those whose whole life has been under review for a long period, and whose worth has been proved.' This canon proved totally ineffective, to judge by the number of famous clerics who broke it, or had it broken on their behalf. It was common for the State or private interest groups to push their nominees into key Church posts, irrespective of their status. St Ambrose was baptized, went through the various clerical ranks and was consecrated bishop of Milan all within eight days. Among laymen ordained direct to the presbyterate were St Augustine, St Jerome, Origen and Paulinus of Nola. Fabian was a layman when made Pope in 236; Eusebius was only a catechumen when made bishop of Caesarea in 314; other laymen-bishops were Philogonius of Antioch in 319, Nectarius of Constantinople in 381 and Synesius of Ptolemais in 410. Eusebius, it should be added, was enthroned by the military, as were Martin of Tours and Philiaster of Brescia. Gregory of Nazianzus says it was common in the fourth century for bishops to be selected 'from the army, the navy, the plough, the forge'. Jerome complained: 'One who was yesterday a catechumen is today a bishop; another moves overnight from the amphitheatre to the church; a man who spent the evening in the circus stands next morning at the altar, and another who was recently a patron of the stage is now the dedicator of virgins.'
Direct bribery was also common. John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople, found six cases of episcopal simony at the synod he held at Ephesus in 401. They came clean: 'We have given bribes - the thing is admitted - so we would be made bishops and exempt from civil duties.' They asked to be confirmed or, if this were impossible, to have their money back. They were evidently small men: 'Some of us have handed over furniture belonging to our wives.' They got their bribes back and, after Chrysostom's fall, their bishoprics too, keeping their wives all the time.
Almost from the start, the State tried to limit the exploitation of clerical privilege or, rather, use it for secular purposes. As early as 320, and again in 326, Constantine tried to prevent tax-evasion by the rich by edicts which banned decurions, their descendants and other wealthy groups from becoming clergy; the priesthood was to be open only to 'those with small fortunes who are not liable to compulsory municipal services.' The merit of the rule, in Constantine's eyes, was that he, as emperor, could dispense exceptions to the rule. He wanted a system in which the clergy was mainly recruited from uninfluential groups, plus men of his own choosing from the upper ranks. Thus the State was already acting in a discriminatory fashion. It continued to do so in an increasing number of ways. Ammianus notes that Constantius II allowed the clergy to use the imperial transport system free when travelling on official journeys. This was a discriminatory ruling in favour of orthodox bishops: Ammianus says they bankrupted the service by travelling in hordes to endless synods, ensuring that orthodoxy was always in the majority. And were clergy judged heterodox to enjoy fiscal privileges? Here again, Constantine forged a useful weapon for himself. He ruled against most schismatics and heretics at the behest of orthodox clergy; but in the case of the Novatianists, for instance, he ordered that 'they shall firmly possess, without disquietude, their own church buildings and places for burial', and other properties 'acquired in any manner whatsoever' - and their priests were accordingly exempt. Constantine justified this on the grounds that they differed from the Catholics on disciplinary rather than doctrinal grounds. His real reasons were doubtless very different; and the extension or withdrawal of fiscal privilege clearly gave him and his successors a powerful voice in the Church's internal affairs.
Julian recognized that the strength of the orthodox Church rested to a great extent on imperial discrimination in its favour. According to Ammianus, he tried to atomize the Church by ending the system:
'He ordered the priests of the different Christian sects, and their supporters, to be admitted to the palace, and politely expressed his wish that, their quarrels being over, each might follow his own beliefs without hindrance or fear. He thought that freedom to argue their beliefs would simply deepen their differences, so that he would never be faced by a united common people. He found from experience that no wild beast? are as hostile to men, as Christians are to each other.'
By Julian's day, however, official Christianity was entrenched enough to survive such tactics; it was continually extending its legal privileges and thwarting State efforts to curb them. It had become rich, indeed very rich. As an illegal organization, it had been forbidden, in theory at least, to own property until the edict of toleration. In fact it had acquired a great deal: by purchase, gift and inheritance. With toleration, however, and the removal of all legal restrictions by an edict of 321, endowments multiplied. It became common for wealthy men and widows to leave one-third of their property to the Church; rank and file Christians were taught to treat 'Christ's bride' as an additional child in their wills. There were abuses, too. Julian, an infallible expert on the darker side of Christianity, wrote that he would 'no longer allow "clerics" to sit as judges and draw up wills and take the inheritance of other men, and assign everything to themselves.' In the second half of the fourth century, for the first time, we get hints of public complaints against the wealth of Christian clergy and the splendour of its buildings. Some Christian writers took note: 'Our walls glitter with gold', wrote Jerome, 'and gold gleams upon our ceilings and the capitals of our pillars; yet Christ is dying at our doors in the person of his poor, naked and hungry.' But others were dying too: rich men and women with wills to make and wealth to bequeath. For the first time, also, we get efforts by the State to prevent too great a proportion of the collective wealth, especially real property, falling into the dead hand of the Church.
There was a batch of laws in the 360s dealing with the individual and collective wealth of the Church, some passed under Julian, some under his Christian successors, which indicated that the State, irrespective of its religious complexion, thought that clerical manipulation of the tax-laws, and the Church's progressive tendency to absorb wealth, had to be brought under control. In 360, clerical land was in some cases subjected to taxation and clerics themselves were declared non-exempt for tax on their private incomes. In 362 decurions who escaped compulsory public services by taking clerical rank were ordered to be dismissed and two years later they were obliged, on ordination, to transfer their property, and so their duties, to a member of their family; four years later still, clergy were forbidden to benefit from legacies made by widows or female wards, or to solicit for the same. Jerome, in his comments on this last law, was divided by his outrage at the discrimination (as he saw it) against the clergy and his grief at the skill with which they evaded it:
'Pagan priests, actors, jockeys and prostitutes can inherit property: clergymen and monks alone are forbidden by law, a law enacted not by persecutors but by Christian emperors ... but though the law is strict and detailed, greed marches on heedless: by the fiction of trusteeship, we defy the laws.'
The association between clerical wealth and the idea of a privileged clerical caste, between property and doctrinal orthodoxy, and between an authoritarian Church and a possessing Church, is very marked in the first centuries of Christianity. It was, for instance, from the orthodox elements in second-century Alexandria, as they struggled successfully to impose their brand of Christianity on the hitherto dominant gnostic and Jewish-Christian sects, that we get the first defence of worldly means to spiritual ends. Clement of Alexandria explained away Jesus's absolute command to the rich young man to sell all he had, adding: 'A man must say goodbye to the injurious things he has, not to those which can actually contribute to his advantage if he knows the right use for them; and advantage comes from those that are managed with wisdom, moderation and piety ... outward things are not necessarily injurious.' Significantly, too, Clement also put forward the first philosophical and theological defence of the clerical power to remit sin.
The argument over the existence of this power, and its extent, went right to the heart of the interconnected debates over the function and status of the clergy, the organization of the Church, and its relations with the State and society. Indeed, it was one of the great determining factors in Christian history. Baptism, all agreed, involved a complete remission of sin by the power of the spirit. But thereafter? The earliest Christians had thought in terms of a short period between baptism and the parousia. But with a receding, indeed disappearing, eschatology, the problem of sins committed after baptism, perhaps during a whole lifetime, became acute. Some, like Constantine, delayed baptism until they were on their deathbeds; on the other hand we have evidence of infant baptism from the second century. How could the baptized Christian be cleansed from sin? Did the Church have the power to do it? Certainly the idea of penance as an institution was unknown to Paul. There were hints of it in the pastoral epistles, and the famous 'binding and loosing' text in Matthew (interpolated or not) could be used in this sense. Clement, as noted, thought the Church could restore the lapsed to full communion, and penance had begun to take institutional form by the time of Tertullian. Indeed, it was essentially on this issue, holding as it did the key to many others, that he left the orthodox Church.
Tertullian was a puritan and, like most puritans, took an elitist view of the Church. Its appeal and nature were universal, but the process of selection, or election, was strict. Once baptized, a Christian must abstain from serious sin or lose his election; indeed, the fact of a serious post-baptismal sin proved he never had it. This was God's clear will; there was nothing the Church could do about it, though it had powers of forgiveness in minor matters. The breaking point for Tertullian came, he tells us, when a 'senior bishop' (probably Calixtus of Rome), decided that the Church had the power to grant remission after baptism, even of such serious sins as adultery or even apostasy. It was this claim on behalf of the clergy - to him inconceivable - which made the former scourge of the heretics into, as it were, the first protestant. And, once he denied clerical rights in this respect, he was led, progressively, to question clerical claims to separate status in the Church. In his orthodox days, Tertullian had attacked the Montanist-type heretics because 'they endow even the laity with the functions of the priesthood.' Now, having denied the penitential power, he became a Montanist himself, and asked, in De Exhortatione Castitatis:
'Are not we laymen priests also? ... The difference between the order and the people is due to the authority of the church and the consecration of their rank by the reservation of a special branch for the
order. But where there is no bench of clergy you offer and baptize and are your own sole priest. For where there are three, there is a church, though they be laymen ... you have the rights of a priest in your own person when necessity arises.'
So he attacked bishops who showed what he termed 'mildness' in forgiving the sinful and lapsed. He appealed to 'the priesthood of all believers' against the 'usurped' rights of particular office-holders, unspiritual 'lordship', the 'tyranny' of the clerics. Even a woman, if she spoke with the spirit, had more authority in this sense than the greatest bishop. He represented an empty office, she the living spirit. The division was clear cut, between a Church of saints, who administered themselves, and a huge rabble of saints and sinners who had to be administered by a professional clergy. How could such a Church be squared with the clear teaching of St Paul? Tertullian read Romans, as Luther was to do. The spirit in Tertullian's view does not relax its rigour; it judges without partiality or leniency and will never forgive one in mortal sin.
On the other hand, it was easy to see why the bishops, the clergy, the orthodox Church, favoured 'mildness'. It was conducive to the universal mission and conducive, too, to the emergence and consolidation of a clerical caste. The power of the keys would be kept more firmly in their hands if latitude, to be determined by their personal and collective judgment, were allowed. And the power to decide whether a sinner were readmitted or not was necessarily based not on spiritual authority, or direct illumination, but on status, the possession of office. A bishop could remit sins, or not, only as an authorized, appointed, and officially ordained person. Soon the privilege, dependent on office, could be extended to all ordained clergy. Then the cleavage between clergy and laity became complete, and the Church was divided between rulers and ruled.
Tertullian saw the implications of the issue very clearly. And it is no accident that it came to a head in his native territory of North Africa, around Carthage. Nor is it simply coincidence that the debate on penitence and forgiveness erupted most ferociously over the read mittance of the lapsed. The great imperial persecutions of the second half of the third century not only inflicted enormous damage on the Church; in some ways they permanently damaged Christianity. Christian communities were split down the middle on the degree to which they should resist state coercion; or rather they were split three ways. Some, from bishops down, stood their ground, refused all compromise and were killed. Some fled into hiding or exile (this was official Church teaching, in so far as there was one). Some remained, and in varying degrees collaborated. And of course such collaboration involved, often enough, the surrender of Church property. When the persecution was lifted, the runaways returned, the dead were counted and the personal records of all were publicly examined; the arguments and recriminations were bitter. Nearly everyone left alive had something to hide or justify; those without stain were dead. Augustine, in his Contra Cresconium, gives us a rare glimpse of the mutual recriminations of that period, in the first decade of the fourth century, when he quotes one Purpurius of Limata under interrogation in a Church court, angrily lashing back at his accusers:
'Do you think I am frightened of you like the rest? What have you done? You were forced by the curator and the soldiers to give up the sacred books. How did you come to be set free by them, unless you
surrendered something, or ordered it to be surrendered? They did not let you go by chance. Yes, I did kill, and I intend to kill those who act against me. So do not now provoke me to say anything more. You know that I interfere with nobody's affairs.'
This was in Carthage. And of course, after the Edict of Milan, many in Carthage and the territories of the old Punic empire, with its anti-Roman tradition, its continuing separatism and sense of independence, its own Punic, or Berber, language and culture, viewed with repugnance the idea of their Church making common cause with the imperial authorities, their recent persecutors. In a way, the Carthaginian church, founded in the second century, had become the repository of Punic resistance to Roman ideas. It had always had a strong, almost orthodox, Jewish element. It was strict, puritanical, strongly opposed to any compromise with the world and its pagan ideas. It denied the idea of duties to the State. It had its own sense of brotherhood and a readiness to model conduct - including the acceptance of martyrdom - on the examples of the Maccabees. In a sense it looked forward to Luther; in a more concrete sense it looked back to the Dead Sea Scrolls, for men in the Essene tradition had been among its founders. The original Essene insistence on absolute ritual purity found a new expression in the refusal of African Christians to re-admit anyone who had compromised his faith in the time of persecution. And of course this particularly applied to the clergy. He who administered baptism must be undefiled and uncompromised. And a bishop, who ordained priests, had to be above all possible reproach. Unless he were, his baptisms and ordinations were wholly ineffective, indeed, positively evil, for an ecclesiastical organization composed of such men constituted an anti-church, directed by the devil, and casting a hideous shadow over the true Church of the faithful. We have here, in short, a recapitulation of the struggles of the Essenes against the false priests of the defiled Temple.
This was the background to the so-called Donatist heresy. Most Carthaginians believed that Church orders were subjective, that is, invalidated by personal unworthiness. A few thought them objective, that is, universally and always efficacious provided the ordination were valid and this view was increasingly held by orthodox elements outside North Africa. The conflict was bound to produce a disputed episcopal succession sooner or later; and in 311 it did. Some eighty Numidian bishops declared invalid the ordination of Caecilian, Bishop of Carthage, on the grounds that the ceremony had been conducted by a traditor bishop who had handed over holy books to be burned by the official persecutors. They elected another bishop in Caecilian's place and in due course the succession went to Donatus. But, as Caecilian pointed out, many of the eighty bishops had themselves been traditores. He refused to resign. Both sides appealed to Constantine, now the protector of the Church. After much inquiry and hesitation, the emperor opted for Caecilian. That, for the Donatists, completed the persecution syndrome. They now regarded the alliance with the Constantinian state with horror. One of their slogans was: The servants of God are those who are hated by the world.' They asked: 'What has the Emperor to do with the church?' Efforts by Caecilian and his supporters to occupy their benefices were resisted by organized force, usually successfully. Donatists were able to play not merely on the rigorist religious sentiment of their congregations but on local Punic nationalism and anti-Roman, anti-imperial sentiment. We have a little vignette of Donatus, no doubt malicious, from Optatus, Bishop of Milevis: 'When people visited him from any part of Africa, he did not ask the usual questions about the weather, peace and war, and the harvest, but always: "How goes my party in your part of the world?"'
Thus religious politics were superimposed on the politics of geography, race and economics. Constantine kept the Caecilian or imperialist Church party in being but he did not attempt, or perhaps was not able, to do much more. Orthodox Catholicism was confined to wealthy landowners and to the Romanized urban bourgeoisie of the coastal cities and towns; it was the religion of respectability, conformity and acceptance of the world. The Donatist Church rejected the world in a political and economic sense, expressing the aspirations of the native poor of the inland plains and hill districts. About 347, the Caecilians resorted to State violence. A government commissioner, Count Macarius, imposed an imperial peace of sorts by force and fear. Many Donatists were killed, and were instantly revered as martyrs. The fierce and traditional orthodoxy of the African church, fortified by pagan persecution, was branded overnight as heresy - a heresy identified and attacked by the same power which had formerly persecuted in the name of a pagan State. The issue at stake was not just the protest of a particularist sect but the survival of a provincial tradition of Christianity in a universal and (to Africans) parasitic empire. Constantine invited the problem by aligning the empire with the universal Catholic Church; his successors had to cope with it. If they persecuted they aroused a resistance movement; if, like Julian, they withdrew the support of the legions from the orthodox party, the Donatists moved forward and threatened the State's interests, as well as the Church's.
From 'the Time of Macarius' as they called it, the Donatists memorized a bitter folklore of martyrs, injustice and outrage. The original issues were forgotten as class, race and nationality closed ranks. The Donatists were a fully organized church, with over 500 bishops, most of them, of course, of small sees. They were basically orthodox in their ritual and teaching; as they saw themselves, ultra-orthodox. Their priests consciously re-created the attitudes of Zealots, and went around in parties armed with clubs, which they called 'Israels', to chastise backsliding, pro-Roman clergy. When they seized an 'orthodox' church, they purified it, as the Essenes might have done, with buckets of whitewash. And they had their private armies, the 'circumcellions'. Much mystery surrounds the composition, motives and significance of these bands. They could be portrayed as desperate, landless men, virtually brigands, who lived in and around Donatist cemeteries, guarding the shrines of the martyrs and issuing forth from time to time to avenge them. But they can also be seen as seasonal labourers, working mainly in the vast olive plantations of the inland plains and hills, wild, semi-civilized Berbers, traditionally and grossly exploited by Roman landowners, most of them absentees. There were, indeed, huge latifundia in North Africa, owned by Roman millionaires, who did not even set eyes on their estates until they took refuge in Carthage after the fall of Rome in 410. Some of these wealthy men, heiresses and widows had already become orthodox Catholics by the mid-fourth century; in addition there were many large-scale local landowners identified with the Caecilian party and, of course, with imperial authority.
Judaic Zealotry had always shown a tendency to attack the rich in the name of religion. Had not the hated Sadducees also aligned themselves with the Roman State, thus defiling the true faith and assisting the grasping oppressor? Josephus accused the Zealots of the 66-70 war of 'thirsting after the blood of valiant men and men of good families'. The conjunction of religious and economic forces in the case of the circumcellions was fundamentally the same; it was yet one more episode in a continuing phenomenon - one which was later to include, for instance, the fourteenth-century peasants' revolt in England. Donatism was a movement of poor men led by puritan clergy. Their shock-troops, the circumcellions, were millenarians who saw the idea of a revived eschatology as an occasion for settling
scores on earth first. They called themselves the 'Captains of the Saints'. Their phases of violent activity usually coincided with periods of economic depression. They protected peasants in debt by terrorizing creditors and landlords. They also extended their umbrella to slaves, who thus became a powerful element in the Donatist Church. In an empire where the carrying of lethal weapons was, strictly speaking, illegal except for privileged categories of people, the circumcellions wielded the huge staves they used for knocking the olive-harvest off the trees. Outside the cities their threats usually sufficed. If not, they burnt crops and houses and seized and destroyed the documents attached to slaves. To Augustine, the hammer of the Donatists, the ideologue of the Christian empire, they were agents of anarchy and social horror, 'crazy herds of abandoned men'. He noted that they feasted their martyrs with drunken rioting, which he attributed to the survival of pagan traditions. No doubt there were pagan survivals in the country areas and the hills; but so there were in the towns also. And Catholics, as well as Donatists, liked these riotous saints' days. Augustine's real fear sprang from his hatred of religious dissent in alliance with social revolution. 'What master was there', he asked, 'who was not compelled to live in dread of his own slave, if the slave had put himself under the protection of the Donatists?' And he was able, no doubt with exaggeration but also with some justice, to show the Donatists creating private empires in defiance of law. There was the case of the Bishop of Timgad, who left behind him one of the largest cathedrals ever built in Africa. Augustine says he travelled around 'with intolerable power, accompanied by bodyguards, not because he feared anyone but to inspire fear in others. He oppressed widows, evicted minors, distributed other people's patrimonies, broke up marriages, saw to the sale of innocent persons' properties, and took a share of the proceeds while the owners wept.' Of course this portrait can be interpreted in two ways: of a 'man perpetrating injustices, or seeking to correct them.
Religious struggle, indeed, throws an illuminating light on social and economic tensions in the fourth- century Roman empire. One characteristic of the Donatist church was the ability and willingness of its bishops and priests to use Punic as well as Latin. They had vernacular services; there may even have been vernacular translations of the scriptures. The political and economic posture was anti-Roman, and the cultural stand, to some extent, was anti-Latin. The surviving writings on the Donatist controversy cast, as it were, a periodic searchlight on the North African theatre; elsewhere, we know much less but we sometimes get hints of similar patterns of conflict and stress. It was a feature of the Montanists, for instance, that they spoke the local, often tribal, language or patois of the areas where they operated; they did so, for instance, in Phrygia. It was one reason for their undoubted successes. How far nonconformist Christianity worked in conjunction with local tribalism and nationalism is hard to determine and harder still to prove it was deliberate and systematic. But the probability is that almost from earliest times Christian groups over widely scattered parts of the empire had become identified or had identified themselves with local aspirations and grievances. This would help to explain the earlier persecutions, always conducted purely at local level. It would also help to explain the anxiety of orthodox Christianity to disengage itself from this kind of religious adventurism - the Montanists being an outstanding example but not the only one. From the second century the Catholic Church, as it increasingly called itself, stressed its universality, its linguistic and cultural uniformity, its geographical and racial transcendence -in short, its identity of aims with the empire. These are the themes of most Catholic propagandists of the Roman school, especially in the third century. In due course, the orthodox Church received its reward: imperial recognition, beneficence and support against its enemies. For, and this is the key point, were not the enemies of the Catholic Church the enemies of empire even before the alliance was forged? From the antinomian perspective of Julian we again get an insight into the truth. In a letter defending his religious policy of withdrawing state military support from the orthodox brand of Christianity, he points out passionately that this had ended bloodshed. 'Many whole communities of so- called heretics', he claims, 'were actually butchered, as at Samosata, and Cyzicus in Paphlagonia, Bithynia and Galatia, and among many other tribes villages were sacked and destroyed; whereas in my time exile has been ended and property restored.' We have here a picture of the Catholic Church and the Roman State operating jointly over a wide area for diverse but compatible motives, to impose order, uniformity and central control. And of course one reason why Julian's own policy, idealistic though it might be, failed to work and was abandoned and reversed, was that diversity of religious belief was incompatible with the purely secular needs of the imperial administration.
Thus, while there is no real evidence that primitive Christianity at any stage in its formation constituted a revolutionary social force, conscious or unconscious, what it did do was to breed a multitude of divergent sects springing from, and aggravating, local particularism, as well as a dominant strain which identified itself with the empire, the possessing classes, and the status quo. So Christianity produced and reflected forces which were both holding the empire together and trying to tear it apart. In Rome and Constantinople, Christians were orthodox and imperial. In North Africa they were predominantly schismatic and nationalist. And over large parts of the empire Christian elements formed a multiplicity of troublesome groups, each trying to thrust its own levers into the cracks in the imperial structure. And these dissenting groups often overlapped. At one time in a single Phrygian town there were churches run by Montanists, Novatianists, Encratites and Apotactites or Saccophori, all of them forbidden sects. Scattered throughout the imperial territories there were varieties of Christian Enthusiasts, priest- deserters or vacantivi, catenati or long-haired, chained ascetics, fanatic robber monks and great numbers of heretical groups. By the 390s, Filastrius, the elderly Bishop of Brescia, who had spent his entire life collecting information about heresy, had compiled a list of 156 distinct ones - all, it would seem, still flourishing. Heresy held particular attractions for dispossessed tribesmen, or tribes within the frontiers which had been subjected to collective punishments, for bands of military deserters, or fugitives from barbarian raids who lived by robbery. And, to both the imperial authorities and the orthodox Church, the most frightening aspect of heresy, particularly of the Montanist or Donatist type, was the speed with which it could spread, leaping like a prairie fire from one local tuft of grievance to the next. Rome had tolerated the old tribal religions, provided they did not involve human sacrifice, because they were essentially as conservative as her own; all underwrote hierarchical human structures. Christian heresy, on the other hand, was almost by definition anti-authoritarian and it linked in unholy communion men whose notions were otherwise merely tribal, or even criminal, by supplying them with transcendental and dangerous concepts.
For all these reasons the imperial State found itself obliged - it was not unwilling - to become the enforcement agency of Christian orthodoxy. By the time of Theodosius, in the fifth century, there were over 100 active statutes against heresy and heretics. The first general statute, dating from the 380s, shows the essentially secular nature of the State's concern: it is attacking heresy now as it once attacked Christianity as a whole because it provoked disorder. Thus sanctions are laid down against 'those who contend about religion ... to provoke any agitation against the regulation of Our Tranquility, as authors of sedition and as disturbers of the peace of the church. ... 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.'
This law was very severe indeed, as it appears to forbid religious debate of any sort outside, presumably, the authorized channels. But in some ways it was merely a logical culmination of a train of events set in motion by Constantine's decision to seek alliance with orthodox Christianity. Indeed, to a great extent Constantine himself may have been aware of the logic at the time of his Milan Edict. His policy was, and remained, that of toleration as between Christianity and paganism; he stuck to this and he boasted of it - he had, he said, 'left them their Temples'. But his attitude to divergency within Christianity was not the same; in fact, one of his main reasons for tolerating Christianity may have been that it gave himself and the State the opportunity to control the Church's policy on orthodoxy and the treatment of heterodoxy.
Of course Constantine was not concerned with doctrinal truth. So far as was possible he wanted the Church to be Universalist and inclusive. He wrote threateningly to Bishop Athanasius in c. 328: 'As you know my wishes, pray admit freely any who wish to enter the church. If I hear you have stopped anyone claiming membership I will immediately send an official to depose you and send you into exile.' He knew that Athanasius, though orthodox, was a violent man, who regularly flogged his junior clergy and imprisoned or expelled bishops. That was not the sort of Church Constantine wanted: his Church must reflect the empire at its best - harmony, serenity, multiplicity in unity. Equally, he disliked doctrinal argument, for which he had no sympathy or understanding. His initial reaction to the Arian dispute was that it was about a trifle - 'a point of discussion ... suggested by the contentious spirit fostered by misused leisure ... merely an intellectual exercise.' He thought the matter 'too sublime and abstruse' to be settled with certainty, or, if settled, above the heads of most people. The issue was 'small and very insignificant'. He urged both sides to be 'sparing of words' and to 'exhibit an equal degree of forbearance and receive the advice which your fellow-servant righteously gives.'
It was in this spirit that Constantine (and the great majority of his successors) approached his role in Church politics. He was to be a mediator, a role he was good at and enjoyed. From Eusebius's descriptions of Constantine presiding at the Council of Nicea in 325 and at other great ecclesiastical gatherings we see the emperor in his element, arranging elaborate ceremony, dramatic entrances and processions and splendid services. He brought his skill in public relations to the management of Church affairs. It was a far cry from the days of the 'pillars' and the Council of Jerusalem. Constantine, in fact, may be said to have created the decor and ritual of Christian conciliar practice. He tried also to set the tone of debate: eirenic, conciliatory, urbane. It was he who insisted, as a formula for compromise, the insertion of the phrase 'consubstantial with the father' in the creedal agreement. 'He advised all present to agree to it,' says Eusebius, 'and to subscribe its articles and assent to them, with the insertion of the single word "consubstantial" which, moreover, he interpreted himself.' Constantine, in accordance with the interests of the State, was anxious to avoid a row if possible and, if one occurred, to look for an honourable solution. Thus, although at Nicea he arranged for an overwhelming majority of the bishops to condemn certain specific beliefs of Arius and his followers, he later showed himself very eager to have Arius restored, on the basis of a confession of faith; again, in 321, to avoid a wrangle with the Donatists over the church he had built at Constantine (Cirta), which they occupied and the orthodox claimed, he gave the latter the State customs house as a substitute. Constantine, in brief, put order and stability, the rule of law, before any other religious consideration. But when dissent in his view challenged the rule of law he acted quite ruthlessly. In 316 he thought it necessary to persecute the Donatists, and did so; one Donatist sermon complained that 'local judges were imperatively ordered to act and put the secular power in motion; buildings were surrounded by troops; our wealthy followers were threatened with proscription, the sacraments were defiled, a mob of heathen were unleashed on us, and our sacred buildings became the scene of profane feasts.' Again, in 333, in the first instance of censorship being employed in defence of Christian interests, he ordered savage action against Arian writings: 'If any treatise composed by Arius is discovered, let it be consigned to the flames ... in order that no memorial of him whatever be left ... [and] if anyone shall be caught concealing a book by Arius, and does not instantly bring it out and burn it, the penalty shall be death; the criminal shall suffer punishment immediately after conviction.'
Such ferocity betrays an element of exasperation. Indeed, one might say that the attitude of the emperors towards their religious responsibilities tended to follow a regular pattern: they began in a spirit of self- confident ecumenicalism and ended in blind rage and repression. They always underestimated the tenacity with which clerics clung to minute distinctions, and the depth of their odium theologicum. In the end, the emperor always felt he had to back one party, to give it official status and destroy the other simply to keep the peace; but the choice was not always well-judged and the peace was not therefore kept. The empire did not, in the end, solve the Donatist problem which convulsed North Africa, nor the dispute over free will, which flickered over all the Mediterranean, nor the huge series of Christological controversies which fascinated the East and Egypt throughout the fourth and fifth centuries. The empire embraced Christianity with a view to renewing its strength by acquiring a dynamic State religion. In effect, however, it exchanged a State ritual, which was harmless because it was dead, for a religious philosophy which defied easy definition because it was alive and was therefore a risk to the administrative setting in which it found itself. Christianity, by its nature, always ends by damaging its secular patrons.
Generations of emperors grappled with the problem of the Christian deity and how to give it a final and universally accepted definition which would end the argument. But it was, by its very nature, insoluble. In the first century the world was waiting for a monotheistic, Universalist religion. Christianity supplied it. But then: was Christianity truly monotheistic? In the last resort, what distinguished it from Judaism was belief in the divinity of Christ. If Jesus were a mere messiah then the two religious systems were reconcilable, as indeed the Jewish Christians had argued. But insistence that Jesus was the son of God placed the movement right outside even the furthest confines of Judaic thought and not only separated the systems but brought them into mortal enmity. This situation was in time brought about by the victory of Pauline theology. The divinity of Christ gave Christianity its tremendous initial impact and assisted its universality. But it left Christian theologians with a dilemma: how to explain the divinity of Christ while maintaining the singularity of God. Were there not two Gods? Or, if the concept of the Spirit were introduced as a separate manifestation of divinity, three?
The point became an irritant at a very early stage of Christian history. One possible solution was to regard Christ as a manifestation of a monolithic God and therefore not a man at all. This was the line followed, in general, by the Gnostics. Thus Valentinus wrote: 'Jesus ate and drank in a peculiar manner, not evacuating his food. So much power of continence was in him that in him his food was not corrupted, since he himself had no corruptibility.' This weird theory invalidated most of the gospels, devalued the resurrection and made nonsense of the eucharist. The Docetists, who also belonged to this school, faced the issue squarely: as Christ's human body was phantasm, his sufferings and death were mere appearance: 'If he suffered, he was not God. If he was God, he did not suffer.' Christianity thus presented lost much of its attraction.
There were attempts to meet this objection by more sophisticated definitions. The Monarchianists, while emphasizing the unity of God, suggested that the Father himself descended into the Virgin Mary and became Jesus Christ, a formulation also known as Patripassionism. The Sabellianists put it a slightly different way: Father, Son and Holy Ghost were one and the same being, that is the body, the soul and the spirit of one substance - one God in three temporary manifestations. These were intellectually digestible concepts but they were still incompatible with the historical Jesus who was now an integral part of the canonical scriptures.
A second line of solution was to stress the manhood of Christ. This, of course, had been preferred all along by the Judaizing elements in Christianity and was the essence of the heresy maintained by the Ebionites, the displaced rump of the Jerusalem Church. The objection, of course, was that it was then difficult to differentiate Christianity from Judaism and impossible to retain Pauline theology or (among other canonical texts) the gospel of St John. The half-way stage along this line was to deny Christ's preexistence as God and this is more or less what Arius, the most important of the Christological Trinitarian heresiarchs, tried to do. As he put it himself: 'We are persecuted because we say that the Son had a beginning, but God is without beginning ... and this we say because he is neither part of God nor derived from any substance.' According to the historian Socrates, writing c. 440, his actual formulation was as follows: 'If the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence; hence it is clear that there was a time when the Son was not. It follows then of necessity that he had his existence from the non-existent.'
The intrinsic difficulty of the problem lay in the lack of room for manoeuvre for a middle course. A right-thinking theologian, anxious to remain orthodox, tended to smash his ship on Charybdis while trying to avoid Scylla. Thus Apollinaris, Bishop of Laodicea (d. 392), in his efforts to demonstrate his anti-Arianism, emphasized the divinity of the Lord at the expense of his manhood and ended by creating a heresy of his own which denied that Christ had a human mind. Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople 428-31, reacting from Apollinarianism, reasserted the manhood of Christ to the extent of questioning the divinity of the infant Jesus and thus denying Mary her title of theot'okos or 'God-bearer'. He, too, found himself a reluctant heresiarch. In turn, Eutyches, a learned monk from Constantinople, in his anti- Nestorian fervour, swung too far in the direction of Apollinarianism and came to grief over Constantine's compulsory word 'consubstantial'. Summoned to recant before a council in 448, he gave up in despair: 'Hitherto I have always avoided the phrase "consubstantial after the flesh" [as tending to confusion]. But I will use it now, since your holiness demands it.'
What room for manoeuvre there was consisted in verbal manipulations behind which lay nebulous concepts. 'Consubstantial after the flesh' was, indeed, such a device. But a clever formula might, in
solving an old problem, raise an entirely new one and a compromise meaningful and satisfactory to one generation of fathers was often interpreted in rival ways by the next. The Church's collective memory was an imperfect instrument. By the third century, for instance, it had forgotten the origins of the old Jewish-Christian Ebionites and assumed they were the followers of a heresiarch called Ebion; not only was he denounced by orthodox writers but sentences from his works were produced for refutation. All kinds of subsequent constructions were placed upon the Nicene formula, and the motives of those who approved it. Then there were language difficulties. Greek lent itself to complexity of religious discussion. This was one important reason why the great Christological rows were all of eastern origins and were mere imports in Latin-speaking areas. Our word 'essence' can be used in a general or a particular sense. The Greeks had two, hypostasis and ousia, each of which could be used in either sense. Some of the leading fourth-century Greek theologians began to employ ousia in the general sense and hypostasis in the particularist -'person' or 'character'. But the Latin for both words is substantia - which in fact is the exact equivalent of hypostasis. The Latin essentia, the equivalent of ousia, never gained currency. The Latins did, however, have the word persona, which they employed for the particularist sense. The Greek equivalent of this, prosopon, was not used by orthodox theologians because it had been discredited by the Sabellians. The upshot was that it proved comparatively easy to devise a definition in the Latin West; much more difficult to produce one for the Greek East, and almost impossible to create a translatable formula which both East and West could accept in good faith. It was difficult for non- theologians, especially in the West, to keep up. Augustine tells the story of the Italian general who engaged him in a debate on the Trinity under the impression that homousios was an Eastern bishop. But in some ways it was even more difficult for the educated since they tended to invest words with portentous imagery. Thus Nestorius was appalled by the implications of the word theotokos, or God- bearer, as applied to the Virgin Mary. To him it implied Mary was a goddess. He went adrift on this one word; as the historian Socrates said, 'He was frightened by that word theotokos, as though it were a terrible ghost.'
It can be said that Rome, speaking for Latin theologians generally, and taking a simpler and less sophisticated view of the affair, consistently supported a definition which accorded Christ full godhead and avoided charges of polytheism by use of the word persona. Rome, indeed, was more interested in blocking the evasions and misconstructions of heretics than in evolving an absolutely comprehensive and irrefragable formula of its own. Its position was put out most fully in the Tome of Leo, Bishop of Rome 440-61, and sent East as an authoritative statement representing not only the view of the oldest apostolic Church but the united opinion of the Latin West. The Greeks regarded the Latins as amateurs in theology and in general as barbarous and ill-educated persons. Nevertheless, they were so divided among themselves that Roman and Latin support ensured the eventual triumph of the 'orthodox', anti- Arian faction at the Council of Chalcedon, 451. Christ was 'one substance with us as regarded Tils man hood; like us in all respects apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the Godbearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only begotten, recognized in two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.'
This complicated formula has been held to mark the end of the controversy so far as the mainstream of Christianity is concerned. In fact it did nothing of the sort. It enormously strengthened the antagonism between East and West, in which the Trinitarian debate became not so much the cause of conflict as its most convenient and hallowed battlefield, and in the East it produced merely the illusion of ecumenical agreement. But the terminology of the debate changed, with those who refused to accept Chalcydon being grouped under the term 'monophysite'. Right from the first, it can be argued, the tendency in Christian Asia and in Egypt was to insist rigorously on a monotheist interpretation of Christianity. Jewish Christianity with, in effect, its denial of Jesus's divine nature, never successfully progressed beyond Asia Minor into Europe but traces of it remained important in the composition of Christianity all along the North African coast, in Syria, in the Middle Eastern desert, and right up the Nile. But as the Trinitarian doctrine evolved in the orthodox Church, the emphasis changed from an insistence on One God, to an insistence on One God Christ, with a single, divine nature, not two. This appeared to preserve the centrality of Christ along with the monotheistic principle, yet at the same time it differentiated Christianity decisively from Judaism, which rejected Christ altogether. Among the less sophisticated, especially the desert tribes, there was still lingering fear of the old gods dispossessed by Christianity. They were now believed to take the form of demons - this was to some extent official Catholic doctrine - who intervened constantly in the world, inflicting evils ranging from minor discomforts to earthquakes. Only a Christ who was fully divine could provide adequate protection against such creatures.
The Chalcedon formula was not therefore widely accepted south and east of Antioch. An underground episcopate was created and its monophysite elements can be traced today in the history of a number of schismatic or separated churches - the Copts of Egypt, the Armenians, the Ethiopians and the Syrian Jacobites. The Trinitarian and Christological divisions in the East remained unresolved, just as further west in Africa the Donatist schism was never finally healed. Orthodox Christianity appeared triumphant but its strength was undermined by popular feeling which remained heterodox, especially in tribal areas. In a great arc around the eastern and southern Mediterranean littoral, glittering Romanized cities, with their wealthy bourgeoisie, their huge orthodox basilicas and their ecclesiastical apparatus of complacent conformity, testified to the apparent solidity of the Christian world. Further inland, however, and often in the great cities themselves, Christianity as imposed by Chalcedon lacked a popular basis. This source of weakness was never eliminated; indeed it increased and ultimately the whole structure was swept away in a few decades by the Arab tribes and their clear Moslem doctrine of One God. Errors of Christian statesmanship thus delivered Asia and Africa to the Moslem alternative. The speed with which it was adopted and the unavailing efforts of Christianity to win back lost ground, indicate the strength of the Moslem popular appeal which banished all dubeity about the one-ness and nature of the divine.
Why was it that the arguments about the nature of Christ and the Trinity evoked so much more passion in the Greek-speaking East than in the Latinized West? It is not easy to reconstruct the religious sociology of the fourth and fifth-century Mediterranean world. To some extent there had been elements of mass emotional appeal in Christianity right from the start. This is apparent from the description of Pentecost in Luke's Acts. And from an early stage internal Christian disputes had been conducted to some extent with a mass public in mind. Lucian describes a revivalist-style meeting held by Alexander, one of the leading sectarians, designed to whip up frenzy against orthodox Christians. It was held at night, with massed torches, and began with a ritual casting-out of Christians, whom Alexander denounced as spies. He would shout: 'Out with the Christians!' and his cheer-leaders were taught to reply: 'Out with the Epicureans!' Mass-meetings and slogan-shouting were characteristic of the
Montanist movement, and later of the Donatist church in North Africa. The huge basilicas Donatist bishops built for their flocks served as echoing auditoria at which the congregations could be worked up into a frenzy by popular orators, sometimes as a preparation to issuing into the streets as an armed mob to impose the Donatist will on the orthodox or on the Roman authorities. The use of money to manipulate crowds of slaves and poor people in a specific doctrinal direction had been one of the earliest features of Christianity. The tendency became more marked under the later empire, with the emergence of trade and craft guilds, in effect hereditary and compulsory unions, which bound sections of the community into tightly organized groups, each with its own series of economic and social interests, and each bribable, or persuadable. These craft-guilds had long played a leading role in municipal politics. By the fourth century they operated in the religious sphere, influencing or even determining the outcome of the episcopal elections, where these were still open to the whole population of Christians, and ready to be marshaled on the popular side in any religious dispute. No wonder Donatus used to inquire about his 'party' in distant towns! Direct bribery in a religious cause was by no means unknown. At a time when the free distribution of bread had become part of the system of government in many cities and towns, the fact that the Donatists controlled the main public bakery in Hippo was regarded as a prime source of their strength.
In the West, the mob could not easily be stirred by what we would term the more abstruse aspects of theology. The same had been true of the East as late as the third century. Origen had lamented that in Alexandria, then perhaps the most populous Christian city on earth, there was an immense gap between Christian intellectuals on the one hand and the city masses who knew nothing 'except Jesus Christ and Him crucified'. The change seems to have come about through the development of a primitive monastic movement in Egypt and Syria. Monasticism in its general sense we will analyze later. For the present, what concerns us is the existence in the East, in the third century and far more so in the fourth and fifth, of large numbers of monks living in the vicinity of towns like Alexandria. The great majority came from the lower social groups and were mainly illiterate. As such, however, they formed a link between the Church authorities and the masses and thus an instrument in the hands of a clever episcopate. The great bishops of Alexandria, Athanasius and still more Cyril, were the first to use the monks for the purpose of popularizing doctrinal positions. The monks were Coptic-speaking like the Egyptian masses and they translated into household terms, and popularized as slogans, the complex formulations of the theological experts. In this way what Origen had desired was brought about, though he might have shuddered to see the result.
The monks were often formed, or formed themselves, into black-robed squads for the execution of the Church's business, first to smash up pagan temples, later to rampage through the streets and basilicas in time of doctrinal controversy. Monasticism attracted misfits, bankrupts, criminals, homosexuals, fugitives, as well as the pious; it was also a career for raw peasant youths who could be drilled into well- disciplined monkish regiments to be deployed as an unscrupulous bishop might think fit. They were taken in bands to Church councils to bully hostile delegates and try to influence the outcome. The secular authorities fought to keep the monks out of the cities and towns by banishing them to their desert holes. But some monks had urban tasks. There were thousands of Alexandrian monks who worked, allegedly, as sick-attendants at the city's infirmaries, leprosies and so forth. They were liable to riot at a nod from the bishop. An imperial edict of 416 tried to confine their numbers to 500, the rest being expelled, and to forbid them to interfere in municipal affairs or court-business; it was not easily enforced. And the work and the example of the Alexandrine monks gradually spread through Eastern Christendom to create the phenomenon of the 'religious mob'. Alexandrine bishops who had raised mobs to smash Arians and Nestorians were soon imitated by their rivals in Antioch, and the habit of mobs intervening in religious politics spread to Constantinople where the two banishments of Bishop John Chrysostom, for instance, reflect the workings of mob theology. A fanatical religious mob could be used to blackmail a council of frightened ecclesiastics or even to overturn an imperial decision which impinged on Church affairs. Thus the bishops of Alexandria, who controlled the seamen's union of the port, threatened from time to time to starve the imperial capital, Constantinople, of its Egyptian grain supplies. But a bishop who created a theological mob was liable to find himself in the role of apprenti sorcier. Popular enthusiasm for a certain doctrinal line became a menace when compromise had to be reached to preserve the unity of the Church - one reason why it proved so difficult. Bishops who returned to their cities having accepted an unpopular formulation were liable to be thrown out or worse. Bishop Proterius of Alexandria so infuriated his flock by accepting the decision of Chalcedon that in the end they literally tore him to pieces. The phenomenon was not unknown in Rome: Pope Virgilius, 53755 who travelled to a council at Constantinople and accepted an eastern formulation, was saved from repudiation only by his death on the voyage home.
In general, however, mob theology was an eastern growth. It was not confined to the cities. We hear of 'great mobs of rustics' taking part in torchlight processions to hail 'victories' at councils. And rustics swarmed into Edessa to take part in the terrifying demonstrations which were organized against Bishop Ibas when he returned to the city in 449, having compromised on the 'two natures'. We have a record of some of the slogans that were shouted: To the gallows with the Iscariot', 'Ibas has corrupted the true doctrine of Cyril', 'Long live the Archbishop Dioscurus', 'The Christ-hater to the arena', 'Down with the Judophile', 'The works of Nestorius were found with Ibas', and 'Where has the church property gone?' Mingled with the theology, then, we get accusations of moral turpitude and overtones of anti-semitism. Among the wilder eastern mobs it was customary to classify the 'two nature' theory with Judaism. All kinds of powerful forces - localism, regionalism, patriotism, racism, class and commercial interest - were at work behind the theological facade. But it was religion which crystallized them and gave them open, even permissible expression.
Thus Christianity had become a crude form of populist democracy and this was made possible by its universalism. Christians were taught that the games and the circus were wicked and to be avoided as serious sins. In the East at least, theology was a form of sport. Gregory of Nazianzus, Bishop of Constantinople, used to claim of its citizens: 'If you ask a baker the price of a loaf, he will reply: "The Father is greater and the Son inferior". And if you ask if your bath is ready, the servant will tell you: "The Son was made out of nothing".' But it was a sport which transcended class barriers. Or, to put it more soberly, by the fourth century Christianity had completely penetrated all classes. Historical writers of this period do not treat any belief as characteristic of the masses, the vulgar, the uneducated. Where doctrinal divisions arose, they cut across the social pyramid. Now this was in marked contrast to paganism. Any religion tends to be a combination of intellectual theorizing among the elite, and popular belief (or superstition). Roman paganism did not hang together and therefore was ultimately a failure because the intellectual elite could not transmit their theoretical justifications to the masses; and the
reason why they failed was that they could not, in practice, share the beliefs of the masses. Cicero's defence of the gods was that of a sceptic, a man of the world, a political conservative; it meant nothing to the man in the street. Thanks to St Paul, the central mystical and miraculous belief of Christianity, the resurrection of Christ, could be presented to the sophisticates and thanks to Origen it could be woven into a complete philosophical system and so become part of the normal intellectual furniture of the upper classes. Christian intellectuals, in turn, starting from the same foundation of belief as the masses, could transmit their formulations downwards. Within Christianity there was by about 350 no way of defining a clear separation between an upper-class culture and a lower-class culture. There was, rather, a balance, and a highly delicate one; it could not be maintained without frequent crises, involving the reconciliation between belief and reason; and sometimes these led to heresy. Christianity, by abolishing the internal frontiers between the learned and the vulgar, obliged cultured people to accept a number of uncritical and unsophisticated beliefs in miracles, relics, ghosts and so forth; and for the mob it meant treating theological controversy as a subject for popular enthusiasm, or rather fanaticism.
If, however, the cultural unity of Christianity tended to find release for its tension in doctrinal warfare and heresy, the Church always presented a united front to paganism, which was slowly demolished in the course of the fourth and early fifth centuries. But here again there was another important difference between East and West. Constantine's conversion coincided with a further effort to de-centralize the empire, this time marked by the creation of a new imperial capital in the East. Constantinople contained buildings for pagan cults but it was from the start essentially a Christian town and the court there soon acquired a flavour of episcopacy. There Christianity was the religion of the establishment ab initio, and elsewhere in the East, where Constantine's writ ran strongly, there was little resistance from official paganism. It was a different matter in the West, especially in Rome, where paganism and upper-class culture were deeply entwined and where the state gods were identified with the city's heroic past. Rome formed, as it were, a natural urban theatre for paganism and many of the cults were spectacular. Christianity, at this stage at least, could not match the huge mass celebrations which marked the funeral feast of Attis on 24 March: the taurobolium or blood-bath, the howling crowds of flagellating penitents, the castration rites. There were tableaux and miracle-plays, and wild dances, accompanied, according to hostile Christian observers, by obscene acts and songs. For the cult of the Syrian Atargatis there were musical processions in which fanatics danced, slashed their arms and whipped themselves with knotted scourges. The colour and in some cases the majesty of these ceremonies appealed to the same instincts which kept the Roman games going. And, at a higher social level, the meetings of the pagan Pontifical College in chapter, the solemn and very ancient state rituals, conducted in the superb surroundings of the temples whose history went back in some cases nearly a thousand years, had a powerful appeal, which was nostalgic, patriotic and aesthetic.
Not surprisingly, then, the assault on paganism was directed chiefly at its externals, above all at its fabric. Constantine himself began the depredations by removing gold and silver treasures from some temples and in the East he actually pulled several down to make way for Christian basilicas. But to some degree he kept his word about toleration, since one pagan writer admits that in his reign 'though the temples were poor, you could see the rites being carried out'. Constantius II passed the first major anti- pagan law in 341 and next year ordered that 'all superstitions must be completely eradicated'. Temples were allowed to stand only outside city walls, where they were to be used merely for 'plays, the circus and contests' being 'the long-established amusements of the Roman people'. By mid-century the temples were ordered to be closed 'in all places and cities' in order to 'deny abandoned men the opportunity to sin'; temple sacrifices were forbidden and anyone performing them liable to death and confiscation of property. By this time there is evidence that the court was under constant pressure from leading Christians to change a policy of qualified toleration to one of outright suppression. The Christian convert senator, Firmicus Maternus, wrote a book addressed to the Imperial House (c. 345) in which he demanded: 'These practices must be completely excised, destroyed and reformed. ... Away with the Temple treasures! Let the fire of your mind and the flame of your smelting-works roast these gods!' There was a mass of legislation dealing with paganism in the later part of the fourth century, and the first two decades of the fifth. Much of it was contradictory or purely local. Thus in 399 some country districts were ordered to destroy the temples after closing them; others to preserve them intact; others still to remove idols and put the buildings to public uses.
Evidently some of these laws were only partly enforced, or not at all, depending on the allegiance of the officials concerned. But where the State was slow, the Church was increasingly swift. The pagan apologist Libanius, writing in 390, complained bitterly to the Emperor Theodosius about the behaviour of Christian monks:
'You did not order the temples to be closed, but the men in black - they eat like elephants and keep the servants busy with their drinking - attack the temples with stones, poles and iron crowbars, or even their bare hands and feet. Then the roofs are knocked in and the walls levelled to the ground, the statues are overturned and the altars demolished. The temple priests must suffer in silence or die. These outrages occur in the towns; it is worse in the country.'
He said that in rural areas, pagan shrines were seized by the Church, declared 'sacred' and the attached land appropriated by monks - a charge confirmed by the pagan historian Zosimus. The pagan priests lost their privileges in 396, and further laws attached their tax-incomes to the army and transferred the remaining property to the State. Little attempt was made by the authorities to protect pagan institutions from militant Christians, though very occasionally the pagans retaliated themselves. Sozomen recounts an incident at Aulon when Marcellus, the violently iconoclastic Bishop of Apamea, led a band of soldiers and gladiators in an attack on the local temple. 'He kept out of range of the arrows, for his gout prevented him from fighting, pursuing or fleeing. While the soldiers were attacking the temple, some of the pagans discovered he was alone, seized him, and burned him alive.'
In 391 another militant bishop, Theophilus of Alexandria, led a massed attack on the Serapeum, or Temple of Serapis, in Alexandria, said to be the largest place of worship in the world. This complex contained an immense wooden statue of the god, which threatened earthquakes if anyone touched it. According to Theodoret's Ecclesiastical History, 'The bishop looked on these tales as the drivel of drunken hags, and sneering at the lifeless monster's vast bulk, told a man with an axe to strike it ... Serapis's head was cut off, and out ran a multitude of mice. It was broken into small pieces and burnt, but the head was carried through the town, in mockery of those who worshipped it.' Also brought to light were a number of weird priestly tricks, such as hollow statues of wood or brass, with hidden apertures from which priests had whispered oracles or maledictions. These seem to have born a striking resemblance to the various frauds, such as the Boxley Rood, later brought to light during the first great wave of iconoclasm at the Reformation. The destruction of the pagan temples indeed adumbrated many of the attitudes on both sides produced by the puritan campaign against sixteenth-century Christian 'idolatry'.
The weakness of paganism, in fact, was its dependence on external show and, among its upper-class defenders, on a purely aesthetic approach to religious practice. Third-century pagan intellectuals, such as Plotinus and his biographer Porphyry were unable, like the earlier critic Celsus, to attack Christianity as a barbarous superstition, unworthy of educated men. They wrote on the defensive, conceding much of the Christian case. The inability of pagan thinkers to supply a credible alternative to what was now the dominant religious group in the empire completely undermined Julian's attempt to reimpose paganism by state power in the 360s. The attempt ended with his early death in battle, a misfortune seen naturally as a judgment on his cause and we cannot know how successful perseverance might have proved. Julian's method, in effect, was to graft Christian practices on to paganism, while presenting the Christians as intolerant, brutish and destructive. He compiled a catechism, introduced pagan charities and constructed an ecclesiastical hierarchy on Christian lines, with a system of discipline and canon law. He deliberately promoted pagans to high office and discriminated against Christians, excluding them completely from the teaching profession. He thought that by withdrawing State backing from official Christianity he would encourage dissent, especially in the East, and he turned a benevolent eye on the Jews, promising to help them rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem. During a tour of the East he publicly exhorted local authorities to hold mass-sacrifices in the pagan manner and everywhere the temples were reopened and repaired. But there was little enthusiasm. On the contrary, in some areas there were complaints that the sacrifices had led to meat shortages. And then, Julian was superstitious. He believed he reincarnated the soul of Alexander of Macedon, that it was his destiny to re-create the Alexandrine empire, and that the newly-honoured pagan gods would ensure he fulfilled it. He thus made the error of identifying religious truth with military victory. The Roman aristocracy, though predominantly pagan, had ceased to do this. On the whole they thought a pagan revival might raise more problems than it solved. Their interest in the matter was antiquarian and aesthetic.
In any case, in these and other respects, Christianity was changing to meet public opinion. In the second century the Church had acquired the elements of ecclesiastical organization; in the third it created an intellectual and philosophical structure; and in the fourth, especially in the latter half of the century, it built up a dramatic and impressive public persona: it began to think and act like a state Church. This policy was shaped by the need to outface paganism - almost consciously so, after the failure of the Julian revival, during the pontificate of Bishop Damasus of Rome, 366-84. His aim seems to have been quite specific: to present Christianity as the true and ancient religion of the empire and Rome as its citadel. Thus he instituted a great annual ceremony in honour of Peter and Paul, making the point that Christianity was already very old and had been associated with Rome and the triumphs of the empire for over three centuries. The two saints, he argued, not only gave Rome primacy over the East, since it was their adopted city, but they were also more powerful protectors of the city than the old gods. Christianity was now a religion with a glorious past as well as an unlimited future. Damasus lived well and entertained sumptuously. In c. 378 he held a synod, 'at the sublime and holy Apostolic See' - the first time the phrase was used - which demanded state intervention to ensure that western bishops were
subject to Rome. It also ruled that the Bishop of Rome should not be compelled to appear in court:
'Our brother Damasus should not be put in a position inferior to those to whom he is officially equal, but whom he excels in the prerogative of the Apostolic See ...'
Damasus seems to have been a wholly unspiritual man. His enemies called him the man who tickled ladies' ears - most of his important converts were society women. He was single-minded in his efforts to win over the rich to Christianity, no easy task for in his day more than half the senate were still pagan. Forgeries circulated to boost Christian credentials: thus a correspondence between St Paul and Seneca was produced. Christianity attempted to gain a footing in all the great families of the late empire, in both Rome and Constantinople. Prominent ecclesiastics became 'clients' of noble houses, with vast estates and influence at court. Such dynasties tended to take sides in doctrinal arguments or disputes about personalities and appointments. Wealthy widows of successful generals were ranged on both sides in the violent controversies which marked the career of John Chrysostom in Constantinople. A leading noble house could protect a fashionable cleric who otherwise might be classified as a heretic and it could get him a valuable bishopric - by this time bishops, at any rate in the Roman area, were entitled to a quarter of the total revenues of the see. There was also a role for wealthy, well-born, or merely clever laymen adopted by a leading Christian family: they produced much of the ecclesiastical literature of the time and, as we have seen, could easily be pushed into a bishopric if needs required. The palatial town houses of the rich served as centres for such circles: if a family took a strong ascetic line, these houses resembled lay monasteries, which later became a feature of Constantinople.
Worldliness was reflected in episcopal dress, which combined both the dignity of senatorial garb and the new exoticism introduced by Constantine. Bishops, in fact, dressed like wealthy noblemen of the late empire; it was resistance to change which eventually gave this uniform its distinctively clerical connotation. Some outstanding bishops loathed this compromise with Mammon. Gregory of Nazianzus resigned the bishopric of Constantinople when criticized for his austerities and preached an ironic and angry sermon:
'I was not aware we ought to rival consuls, governors and famous generals, who have no opportunity of spending their incomes - or that our stomachs ought to hunger for the bread of the poor, and expend their necessities on luxuries, belching forth over the altars. I did not know that we ought to ride on fine horses, or drive in magnificent carriages, with processions in front of us, with everyone cheering and making way for us as though we were wild beasts. I am sorry for these deprivations. At least they are over. Forgive me for doing wrong. Elect another who will please the majority.'
John Chrysostom was thrown out of the city for taking the same line. He banned episcopal entertainments altogether, eating alone, and sparingly. He would not put up visiting bishops, especially since he thought they ought to be in their own dioceses, instead of collecting large fees for preaching in the metropolis. His own sermons were frantically outspoken, especially when he became excited, flaying the court, the rich, and especially wealthy widows (some of whom supported him). This category of womankind seems to have been a peculiar object of criticism among austere clergy. Jerome, John's
contemporary, writes angrily of:
'their huge litters, with red cloaks and fat bodies, a file of eunuchs walking in front; they have not so much lost husbands as seek them. They fill their houses with guests and flatterers. The clergy, who ought to inspire awe with their teaching and authority, kiss these ladies on the forehead and, putting forth their hands as though to bless, take money for their visits ... after a vast supper, these ladies dream of the Apostles.'
Jerome wrote of priests 'who gain admission to aristocratic houses and deceive silly women ... who seek ordination simply to see women more freely. They think of nothing but their clothes, use scent, and smooth out the creases in their boots. They curl their hair with tongs, their fingers glitter with rings. . . bridegrooms rather than clergy.'
Jerome had seen all this: he had been Damasus's secretary and therefore he knew there was another side to the coin. If Christianity was to become the Universalist faith as its founder had plainly intended, must it not identify itself, to some extent, with the world? And was it not right to do this worthily and elegantly? This was the Damasus line of reasoning. Hence he spent a great deal of effort and money integrating Christianity with imperial culture. Since the time of Constantine, Christian basilicas, which had originally been private houses, had been built on an enlarged scale. Damasus developed the classic late-Roman type, capable of holding thousands, and covered within with gold and coloured mosaic. He employed leading architects and sculptors, beginning a tradition of papal patronage which was to last more than a millenium. He paid professional calligraphers to produce magnificent copies of the scriptures and create church almanacs, giving Easter tables, episcopal lists and so forth. He completed the Latinization of the western church which, even in Rome, had originally been Greek-speaking. Latin versions of the gospels had existed for some time; there was also a third-century North African translation of the entire scriptures. Damasus employed Jerome to make a fresh translation and the result, known as the Vulgate, became the standard until the Reformation.
Damasus also Latinized the mass, which had been conducted in Greek until his time. And he seems to have expanded it in accordance with existing Greek practice. The basic framework of the mass had already existed in the mid-second century, when it was described by Justin Martyr. It consisted of readings from the memoirs of the apostles and the Old Testament; a sermon; a prayer followed by the kiss of peace, and the distribution of the blessed bread and water. This Sunday eucharist had become an absolute obligation by Justin's time and the words of the central prayer became formalized in the next generation or two. Some of the congregational responses were also very ancient. The effect of the process of change introduced by Damasus was to change an essentially simple ceremony into a much lengthier and more formal one, involving an element of grandeur. The scriptural extracts were made longer and standardized, and prayers inserted at fixed intervals. This was how the West acquired the kyrie, the sanctus, the gloria and the creed, most of which were translated into Latin. Some of the ceremonial aspects were taken over from pagan rites, others from court practice, which became far more elaborate after the transfer to Constantinople. The impetus in making the liturgy longer, more impressive, less spontaneous and so more hieratic was essentially Greek but was seized on eagerly by Rome from the time of Damasus onwards. The object was partly to replace the magnificence of pagan
ritual in the public mind, partly also to win the struggle against Arianism, which for a great part of the fourth century was dominant in the East, by emphasizing the awe of Catholic sacrifice. Thus from the late fourth century there was a spectacular explosion of colour in the vestments and hangings, the use of gold and silver vessels and elaborate marble piscinae, silver canopies over the altar, a multitude of wax candles (a mark of respect in Roman domestic practice), and elaborate censering with incense. This was accompanied by a deliberate smartening up of the proceedings on the altar and in procession to and from it, and by an even more deliberate mystification, especially in the East, of the more sensitive parts of the mass. At the end of the fourth century John Chrysostom spoke of the Lord's Table as 'a place of terror and shuddering', not to be seen by profane eyes, and it became customary to screen it with curtains. Again, from this period, or shortly after, we find the practice of erecting a screen or iconostasis, whose effect was to hide all the operations on the altar from the congregation as a whole, and to deepen the chasm between clergy and laity.
These changes were evidently introduced with considerable misgivings, and against a background of constant criticism. But they were popular: part of the process by which the Church was taking over society. To what extent should the Church employ all the resources of human ingenuity in the praise of God? The Church's tradition of music, for instance, was very ancient, indeed pre-Christian. It was a specialty of Essene-type sects, like the Therapeutics of Alexandria, described by Philo, who had elaborate hymns, written down with notation marks, and choirs of men and women, using harmony and antiphony. Paul twice refers to church-singing, which seems to have been taken over straight from the synagogue-Essene practice - as the use of the untranslated Hebrew word Alleluia indicates. Only a few Christian hymns survive from the pre-Constantine period, and only in one case have we a real indication of the music. Celsus, the pagan critic, admitted that it was beautiful, and said he envied the Christians their hymns. Antiphonal singing, with two choirs, spread from the Middle East across the Mediterranean in the fourth century, and was very likely introduced to Rome by Damascus. By the sixth century Roman chanting had become a model for other Western churches, and was later ascribed to Gregory the Great. But the use of music plainly aroused controversy from very early times. The Christians rejected ritual dances, though they were acceptable to the Jewish tradition, were used by gnostic sects (and survive in Ethiopia). Clement of Alexandria warned against such erotic dance tunes, even if they had an ostensible religious purpose; and also against the over-use of chromatic intervals, when they tended to obscure the meaning of the words. Augustine admitted this was wrong, but otherwise he thought the use of church music lawful and indeed essential - the argument was to recur, with great bitterness, in the sixteenth century. There were also two, or more, views on the use of images. Here again, Clement of Alexandria took a severe line, and not surprisingly was backed by Tertullian, who thought all holy statues and pictures should be banned. In fact they made their appearance, with increasing frequency and elaboration, before the end of the second century; and after the conversion of Constantine all the barriers were broken down.
By the end of the fourth century, in fact, the Church had not only become the predominant religion in the Roman empire, with a tendency to be regarded as the official one, indeed as the only one. It had also acquired many of the external characteristics appropriate to its new status: official rank and privilege, integration with the social and economic hierarchy, splendid and elaborate ceremonial designed to attract the masses and emphasize the separateness of the priestly caste. It had arrived. It was well launched on its Universalist career. It had, as it were, responded to Constantine's gesture, and met the empire halfway. The empire had become Christian. The Church had become imperial. Or had it? Let us look at the Church at the turn of the fourth and fifth centuries, as represented by three great churchmen.
In Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, 373-97, we get the first close-up glimpse of the Christian as an establishment figure and member of the ruling order: the prototype of the medieval prince-bishop. Oddly enough, we almost certainly know what he looked like, too, for the mosaic of him in Sant'Ambrogio is early fifth-century, and seemingly taken from life. It shows Ambrose as St Augustine must have known him: a small, frail man, with a high forehead, long melancholy face, and huge eyes. Augustine was struck by the fact, when they first met, that Ambrose read to himself, a habit unknown to the classical world: 'His eyes scanned the page, and his mind penetrated its meaning, but his voice and tongue were silent.' There were other impressive things about Ambrose. His father came from the highest social class. As Praetorian Prefect of Gaul he ruled a huge chunk of western Europe and was one of the half-dozen most important civilians in the empire. Ambrose's election to the episcopal throne of Milan, a city which by then played a more important role in the administration of the West than Rome itself, appears to have been in some sense an act of state, since he was transformed from a prominent layman, not yet baptized, into a bishop within eight days. His biographer, Paulinus, says this was due to popular acclamation. But this is a simplification. The West was orthodox, the East, for the time being - roughly 360-80 - Arian, and it seems likely that the authorities were anxious to balance the existence of an Arian court circle in the West by appointing a staunchly Trinitarian bishop; and this of course would have been popular too. Ambrose played a pontifical role in the politics of his time. He seems to have thought that the bishops exercised collegiate power in the church, but that the influence of individual sees must depend on the importance of the city with which they were identified. 'What is said to Peter,' he wrote, 'is said to the Apostles' - thus brushing aside any special pleading for Rome. And again: 'All we bishops have in the blessed Apostle Peter received the keys of the kingdom of heaven.' 'Christ gave to his Apostles the power of remitting sins, which has been transmitted by the Apostles to the sacerdotal office.' 'We are not usurping a power but obeying a command.' 'Power' was a word constantly on Ambrose's lips: in his mind, the degree of power the Church exercised reflected its spiritual authority and claims, which ultimately must be limitless. Thus: 'We priests have our own way of rising to empire. Our infirmity is our own way to the throne. For when I am weak, then am I powerful.'
The degree of power exercised by Ambrose during the quarter century he ruled the church in Milan was something to which no churchman had hitherto aspired. He influenced the policy of successive western emperors, Gratian, Valentinian II, Theodosius. He won a public debate against the pagans, and prevented the restoration of the pagan Altar of Victory in the Senate House, despite the wishes of the Roman aristocracy. He excommunicated Theodosius for carrying out a mass-reprisal against the citizens of Thessalonica, who had murdered a barbarian army commander, and required the emperor to accept public penance before being readmitted to communion. His ascendancy over Theodosius explains the severity of the legal code enacted against pagans: this ensured that the most beautiful and ancient temples, and their treasures, would be preserved, but that otherwise temple-smashing would go unpunished.
Ambrose was thus instrumental in hastening the process which aligned imperial authority completely
behind the orthodox Catholic Church, and also the Church completely behind imperial policy. It is a matter of fine judgment, therefore, whether Ambrose was a case of the ruling class penetrating Christianity, or vice versa. Perhaps the truth is both. He carried through the logic of the Constantinian conversion. In his day it began to be commonly assumed that non-membership of the Church was, in effect, an act of disloyalty to the emperor. State exile of dissenters went back as far as 314. In the time of Ambrose it became systematic, as a necessary characteristic of an orthodox empire. Those guilty of religious error became automatically enemies of society, to be excluded from it or reduced to second- class status. Who was the judge of error? The Church, naturally. Therein lay power. And, since religion concerned the higher things of the spirit, it was to take precedence over more material considerations. Therein lay superior power.
We see the workings of Ambrose's mind and method in his attitude to the Jews. They were now a 'problem' within the Christian empire, as they had been a problem in the pagan one - a large and conspicuous element which would not accept the Christian norms. And they were increasingly unpopular among Christians. Jews had assisted the authorities during the period of imperial persecution of Christians; they had collaborated with Julian in his pagan revival. Under Theodosius, when Christian uniformity became the official policy of the empire, Christian mob-attacks on synagogues became common. Any such unlicensed violence was contrary to public policy; moreover the Jews were regarded as a valuable and respectable element in society, notable for their general support of authority. In 388 the Jewish synagogue at Callinicum on the Euphrates was burnt down at the instigation of the local bishop. Theodosius decided to make this a test-case, and ordered it rebuilt at Christian expense. Ambrose hotly opposed the decision. His dictum was: The palace concerns the emperor, the churches the bishop.' Was this not a matter of Christian principle? No such depredations had hitherto been punished. To humiliate the bishop and the Christian community would damage the Church's prestige. He wrote to Theodosius: 'Which is more important, the parade of discipline or the cause of religion? The maintenance of civil law is secondary to religious interest.' He preached a sermon on these lines in the emperor's presence, and Theodosius lamely withdrew his orders. The incident was a prelude to the emperor's humiliation over the Thessalonica massacre. Indeed, it marked an important stage in the construction of a society in which only orthodox Christianity exercised full civil rights.
Ambrose, however, was well aware that those rights could only be secured and maintained by the exploitation of the potentialities of Christianity. He brought to his task as bishop the skills of a great administrator, evolving by trial and error a pastoral theology and canon law which supplied the answers to all the questions the Christian life raised. Perhaps no man played a greater part, in practice, in constructing the apparatus of practical belief which surrounded the European during the millenium when Christianity was the environment of society. At Milan, in the great new basilica he completed in 386, the prototype of the medieval cathedral came into existence, with daily mass, prayers at morning and evening and sometimes at other times in the day, and special ceremonies to commemorate the saints, according to a strict calendar. To combat the Arians in the city, Ambrose deliberately dramatized the cathedral services, introducing splendid vestments and antiphonal singing of psalms and metrical hymns. He employed professional choristers, but also trained his congregation. He wrote: 'From the singing of men, women, virgins and children there is a harmonious volume of sound, like the waves of the ocean.' He thought this celestial harmony drove out demons. It certainly angered the Arians, since Ambrose got his people to roar out the praise of the Trinity. He was, in fact, facing the Arians with their own weapons since Arius had himself been a writer of propaganda hymns - popular monotheist ditties for trades- guilds, marching-songs for soldiers, vast numbers of whom became Arians, and theological sea-shanties for merchant seamen. Ambrose was not the earliest hymn-writer in the West; some earlier though unimpressive efforts by Hilary of Poitiers survive. But Ambrose had the knack of producing verse which was memorable and adaptable to music, iambic diameters in four-line stanzas of eight syllables to the line. Four are still in use.
It was Ambrose, in his fight to defeat the popular challenge of Arianism, who first systematically developed the cult of relics. Milan was poorly provided in this respect: it had no tutelary martyrs. Rome had the unbeatable combination of St Peter and St Paul; Constantinople acquired Andrew, Luke and Timothy; and during the last fifty or sixty years amazing discoveries had been made at Jerusalem - the body of St Stephen, the head of John the Baptist, the chair of St James, the chains of St Paul, the column used in the scourging of Christ and, since 326, the cross itself. Ambrose, who took a fanatical interest in all the details of martyrology and relic-mongering, says that when the cross was discovered by Constantine's mother, Helena, it still had the titulus attached to it; and she found the nails, too, having one fashioned into a bit for her son's horse, and another put into his diadem. During the closing decades of the fourth century there was a wave of discoveries, forgeries, thefts and sales of saintly treasures. Pagans did their best to ridicule the practice. The writer Faustus accused the Christians of simply substituting martyrs for pagan idols, and reviving the idea of prodigies under another name. Some Christian writers were also disturbed. Vigilantius, a presbyter, called the cult 'a heathen observance introduced into the churches under a cloak of religion ... the work of idolaters'. He particularly deplored the placing of relics in costly caskets to be kissed, the prayers of intercession, the building of churches in the honour of particular martyrs, and the practice of holding vigils, lighting tapers and lamps, and attributing miracles to such shrines. The government, too, showed some alarm. It was angered by monks who stole the remains of holy men, and hawked portions of them for money. Theodosius laid down: 'No person shall transfer a buried body to another place; no person shall sell the relics of a martyr; no person shall traffic in them.'
But the government permitted the building of churches over the grave of a saint, and it was this that lay at the bottom of the whole theory and practice of relic-worship. Once that was conceded, the rest automatically followed, whatever the law said. The world was terrified of demons - now joined by the dethroned pagan gods, and the devils of the heretics - and the bones and other attachments of sanctified just men were the best possible protection against the evil swarms. Any church well endowed with such treasures radiated a powerful circle of protection; and its bishop was a man to have on your side. So Ambrose pushed the relic-system for all it was worth. At the dedication of his new basilica, he providentially discovered the skeletons of SS Gervasius and Protasius, 'of extraordinary stature, such as ancient times produced'. The episode was accompanied by the curing of a blind man, and other miraculous events, trumpeted abroad by Ambrosian flack-men, and embroidered upon by later generations - in the sixth century Gregory of Tours said that during the translation mass a panel fell from the ceiling, grazing the martyrs' heads, from which blood flowed. At the time, the Arians scoffed, but were soon dismayed by the popular success of Ambrose's find. It was followed by the unearthing of the bodies of SS Agricola and Vitalis, and SS Nazarius and Celsus. In the case of Nazarius, the 'martyr's blood was as fresh as if it had been shed that day, and his decapitated head was entire, with its hair and beard as if it had just been washed', according to Ambrose's biographer. A demon interrupted the sermon in which Ambrose celebrated this event, but the bishop rebuked and silenced him. Cloths dipped in the miraculous blood were sent all over Italy and Gaul. *
* Relics were worn as charms, enclosed in little jewels hung from the owner's neck. The practice may well have derived, as St Jerome suggested, from the phylacteries worn by the Pharisees and scribes. Gregory the Great had a cross containing filings from St Lawrence's gridiron and St Peter's chains; St Hugh of Lincoln carried 'innumerable relics of saints of both sexes', mixed up in a little casket like a snuff-box, and he had a tooth of St Benedict set into his ring. Bishops often wore relics from their cathedrals round their necks, a practice condemned by Aquinas and denounced by a council as 'detestable presumption', but which nonetheless foisted. See J. Sumption, Pilgrimage, An Image of Medieval Religion (London, 1975), chapter 2, 'The Cult of relics'
It is clear from Ambrose's writing that he was wholly sincere in his cult of relics. They were, to him, necessary counterparts to the monstrous cohorts of wicked spirits who roamed the earth, tempting man to forfeit his future in the next world, and making his life unpleasant and dangerous in this. But in addition to the saints, there were also the good angels: ninety-nine to each human being, in his opinion. Ambrose was a superstitious and credulous man, with a weird cosmology. He distinguished between paradise and the superior Kingdom of Heaven, already inhabited by Constantine and (after his death) Theodosius. He thought, in fact, there were seven heavens. Then there was Hades, where people waited for the last judgment, and purgatory, a place of second baptism or furnace of fire, where the precious metal in a soul was tested to rid it of the base alloy. Finally there was Hell, divided into three regions, of increasing horror.
With Ambrose we see the eschatology of the ancient world on the eve of its transformation into the medieval stereotype. But he was also medieval, and prelatical, in his curious blend of gross superstition and worldly wisdom tempered by genuine piety. Ambrose, like most Christian leaders, had reconciled himself to the vanished parousia. So life had to be lived out in this world, but of course with the next in view. He was feeling his way to a pastoral via media, in which the quest for perfection would be balanced by common sense, and the aspirations of the spirit reconciled with the clayey longings of the flesh in which it was imprisoned. Thus, on the subject of money, he thought that private property was objectively an evil; on the other hand: 'Just as riches are an impediment to virtue in the wicked, so in the good they are an aid to virtue.' He condemned commerce: an honest trade, he thought, was a contradiction in terms. So it served a merchant right if he were shipwrecked, since he was driven to put to sea by avarice. No doubt Ambrose would have taken a different view had he been bishop of Alexandria. As it was, being bishop of a great food-producing area, he thought the best form of property was inherited land: to cultivate, improve and extract profit from an inherited estate was not only legitimate but praiseworthy; thus he formulated one of the central religio-economic doctrines of the Middle Ages. Was not agriculture, he argued in De Officiis, the only form of making money which gave
no offence? Millions of Christians would agree.
As for the clergy, Ambrose advised them to make regular charitable donations rather than dispossess themselves of their property - an opinion for which thousands of wealthy medieval prelates were to be profoundly grateful. He evidently followed this advice himself, despite the assertions of his biographer, Paulinus. Ambrose seems to have assumed that the clergy, at least of the higher grades, should normally be drawn from the wealthy and ruling orders, or at least conform to their social behaviour; he admitted he did not like presbyters or bishops who were unable to speak correct Latin, or who had provincial accents. Thus another aspect of the medieval pattern falls into place: a clerical career open to the talents but structured to the possessing class. Ambrose dressed appropriately, as a senator, in chasuble and alb. He dealt with many aspects of clerical behaviour. In his day the Church was tending to adopt the tonsure from some of the pagan sects. But opinion was divided. Some ascetics wore their hair long: Hilarion had it cut only once a year, on Easter Sunday. But then so did some less reputable figures, like Maximus the Cynic, Bishop of Constantinople, who was criticized for his long curly hair, much admired by the wealthy ladies of the capital, and which turned out to be a wig. Jerome said that hair should be just long enough to cover the skin; Ambrose characteristically ruled that it should be longer in winter than in summer. He occupied himself with many detailed aspects of administration: the rank, selection and payment of exorcists, who were attached to churches to expel demons, and who were classified just below the subdeacon; and the activities of Church courts, which were rapidly expanding their business in response to the increasing complexity and importance of canon law. And Ambrose was also the first bishop to deal at length with the question of sex.
Sex had seemed of no importance to the earliest Christians. Believing, as most of them did, in an imminent parousia, it seemed needless to devise rules for the correct means of perpetuating the species. Jesus himself had taken a strict line, compared to some Jewish exegetes, on the issue of marriage: that was the only positive element of basic Christian teaching on sex. It was virtually ignored by Paul; and the New Testament generally had no theory of sex and of the family. The Old Testament made no virtue of celibacy; on the other hand the New Testament did, at least by implication. In Jewish history, authority seemed to descend in the normal family way; in Christian history, however, the genealogical tree of authority propagated itself by spiritual transmission. And there was clearly a celibate tradition in Christian ministry going back through Paul to Jesus himself, to John, to the Essenes and the minority cult of celibacy in Judaism. The earliest Christian documents, written with the parousia in mind, seemed to stress celibacy as a virtue; so that when the parousia receded, and propagation was again seen as necessary, oral any rate unavoidable, the Church confusedly adopted an uneasy coexistence in which celibacy was praised but matrimony tolerated. The formula was reinforced in the fourth century when the Trinitarian controversy, and the triumph of orthodoxy, hugely increased the cult of the Virgin Mary, the theotokos. If, therefore, celibacy were superior, and marriage inferior, though licit, did this not imply that sex was intrinsically evil and even in the context of marriage a form of licensed sin?
The Church, then, did not have a doctrine of sex so much as a series of arguable suppositions; and the attempt to work them out consumed much clerical time and nervous energy. Ambrose wrote a great deal on the subject. He was clear that a full married life was incompatible with a career in the Church. Certainly, two marriages constituted an impediment to ordination. He did not like married bishops: he feared the creation of a priestly caste, with hereditary bishops. Married men ordained as bishops should cease to cohabit and beget children. He thought that this was how Adam and Eve had lived in Paradise. From his writing, it does not seem probable that Ambrose was a highly sexed man. But his judgments seem to have been influenced less by his personal habits and desires than by his pastoral experience. He acted as spiritual adviser to a large number of ladies, virtually all of them from the upper classes, and most with a long history of marital misfortunes. Their tales led Ambrose to take a pessimistic view of the marital state, at any rate as a promoter of felicity. His writings abound with lapidary comments. 'Even a good marriage is slavery. What, then, must a bad one be?' For a woman, marriage was 'a bondage, indignity, a burden, a yoke'. On the other hand, his experience of the Empress-Mother Justina, an Arian who wanted to steal one of his Milanese basilicas for the Arian Goths in the army, led him to reflect sourly: 'Every man is persecuted by some woman or another.' He advised his female penitents to fast, if possible to avoid food altogether for a week or more at a time; it was economical, it preserved beauty and health and stimulated the appetite - and it made chastity or continence easier.
But the best course for a woman was virginity. A virgin could redeem the sin of her parents in conceiving her. Ambrose's sermons on these lines angered parents. But he denied that virginity was responsible for a supposed falling birth-rate: history, he said, proved the world has suffered more from the ravages of ill-advised marriages than from virginity. 'Marriage is honourable but celibacy is more honourable; that which is good need not be avoided, but that which is better should be chosen.' There were contradictions here which Ambrose left unresolved. But on some aspects of virginity he was clear. A virgin was married to Christ. For her, the ceremony of taking the veil should be like a marriage-feast. Thereafter she should conceal herself. Ambrose took an old-fashioned line on this, acting as a bridge between the pagan vestal and the early medieval closed convent. Virgins should not even go to church often: churches were dangerous places, because frequented. 'Even to speak what is good is generally a fault in a virgin.' The true virgin should remain perpetually silent. Ambrose was strict rather than severe. A virgin suspected of sexual intercourse, he ruled, should not be medically examined by force, except in certain special cases, and then only on the authority and under the supervision of a bishop. If found guilty, she should not be executed (Ambrose did not believe in capital punishment but in redemptive justice), and certainly not tortured to death. Head-shaving and penance for life would suffice. A virgin threatened with rape or imprisonment in a brothel would be justified in committing suicide.
Ambrose connected in his mind the spiritual and sexual purity of the virgin with cleanliness. His virgins were spotless: his Virgin Mary, who to some extent became the medieval stereotype, wore white, silver and pale blue, the 'cleanest' of colours. It was quite a different matter with Jerome, his younger contemporary. He was not, like Ambrose, well adjusted to life. As secretary to Bishop Damasus, he seems at one time to have considered himself as a possible successor. But he had the temperament of the scholar, not the administrator. He was a wild man of God, not an urbane prelate. Jerome found sex an enormous difficulty. He was quite convinced it was evil: 'Marriage is only one degree less sinful than fornication'. He found women attractive, and especially virtuous women. This was why he left fashionable Church life in Rome, writing, on board the ship which was to carry him to Palestine: The only woman who took my fancy was one whom I had not seen at table. But when I began to revere, respect and venerate her, as her conspicuous chastity deserved, all my former virtues deserted me on the spot.' By this he appears to mean that his behaviour aroused hostile and malicious comment. In
Jerusalem he founded and entered a monastery from which, for the rest of his life, he conducted a vast correspondence with scholars and saintly ladies all over the empire. One of his letters (to Augustine) took nine years to arrive; most have disappeared forever. Enough survive to reveal him as a wonderfully vivid and outspoken controversialist. His image made him the favourite of all the saints among Christian painters: Jerome and his lion (a sixth-century addition) were painted more often than any other figure outside the Holy Family. Indeed, his description, in a letter to a society virgin, of his struggles to avoid temptation in his monastery ('I often imagined myself among bevies of girls: my face was pale with hunger, my lips chilled, but my mind burned with desire, the fires of lust leapt up before me though my flesh was almost dead') one of the most frequently quoted of all patristic passages, enabled medieval artists devoutly to introduce the naked form into their paintings. Paradoxically, though, no passage did more to bring home to Christians the corruption and wickedness of sexual desire. To Jerome, sex was dirty in a literal or concrete sense; he writes often of his favourite virgins that they were 'squalid with dirt'. Dirt, to him, both epitomized the sexual act and the therapeutic process by which the virgin concealed her charms. The virgin he most esteemed in Rome, Paula, came to Jerusalem with her daughter (the product of an earlier avocation) to care for Jerome's old age. Both ladies dressed in rags and rarely washed or combed their hair.
We see in Jerome the disjunction between normal existence and an evolving idea of Christian virtue which really bore little relation to the teaching of Jesus and Paul, but was itself a reaction to the growing worldliness which flowed from the agreement with Constantine. The harsh Christianity of Jerome was, or seemed, a necessary corrective to the urbanity of Damasus or even of Ambrose. It made Jerome an unhappy and a bitter man. He wrote with particular venom against the heterodox. He claimed with relish to have 'destroyed in a single night' the sceptical Livinius who doubted the efficacy of the relic-cult; and of the Roman monk Jovinian, who had criticized what he regarded as the excessive cult of celibacy, Jerome sneered: 'After being condemned by the authority of the Roman church, and amid feasts of pheasant and pork, he did not so much breath out, as belch out, his spirit'. Other opponents were subjected to similar personal attacks, and Jerome could be equally sharp, even abusive, with his supposed allies. He had a donnish love of savage controversy, and seems to have quarrelled with most of his friends and acquaintances sooner or later. Palladius, whose Lausiac History is one of our chief sources for the period, said Jerome had a notoriously bad temper, and quotes the prophecy of another scholar, Posidonius: The noble Paula, who looks after him, will die first and be freed from his bad temper, I think. Then no holy man will live here, but his envy will include his own brother.' Jerome was the first Christian, of whom we have intimate knowledge, whose interpretation of his faith was quite incompatible with the realization of his nature - the result being profound misery. As Ambrose is the prototype of the medieval prelate, Jerome is the precursor of the agonized Christian intellectual, whose flesh is in irreconcilable conflict with the spirit, and whose enforced continence is bought at the cost of human charity.
The mental world of Jerome was a dark one: it was lit by flashes which seem more a reflection of hell- fire than glimpses of eternal light; nor is the picture produced by Ambrose's writings substantially different, despite his urbanities and his cult of common sense. Both derived from Christianity a pessimistic view of the human condition. It is difficult to judge where they found a scriptural mandate for this judgment. The epistles of Paul stress the joy occasioned by the 'good news' of divine redemption.
The characteristics of the earliest Christian communities seem to have been eagerness balanced by serenity. When Origen turned Christianity from a theory of redemption into a philosophical system, he seized on the positive and expectant aspects of faith.
Arguing with Celsus the pagan, he rejected the idea of a blind destiny or providence working itself out through the aeons, leaving behind limitless generations of suffering humanity, unchanged and unchangeable. He saw, instead, the Christian God as an agent whereby mankind was encouraged to improve, indeed perfect, itself: a continuous process of inching upwards to the light. He became a Universalist in the double sense: the Christian message was addressed to all humanity, and ultimately all would be accommodated in the majestic forgiveness and beneficence of God, having progressively purged themselves of evil. Thus even the devil and the fallen angels would finally recover paradise.
It is notable that the post-Constantine Church repudiated Origen, or at least his optimism. As with Tertullian, his writings were so valuable, and in Origen's case so central to Christian understanding, that his works were never condemned as heretical, and so allowed to disappear in toto - though very few survive in their original form. But Jerome, once his admirer - 'the greatest teacher since the Apostles' - came to regard him not only as heretical in effect, but in intention. The object of Origen all along, he concluded, had been to pervert men's judgments and cause them to loose their souls, and he had written passages of undoubted orthodoxy simply to throw the unwary reader off his guard. Towards the end of the fourth century this view was widely held, not only among theologians but by laymen such as the Emperor Theodosius. Why the change in intellectual climate?
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the retreat from Origenist optimism reflected profound changes in the social and cultural structure of the empire itself, particularly in the West. The Constantinian revival had not been sustained; it had left the empire more fragmented, politically, militarily and administratively; the problems of currency and inflation in the West remained unsolved. The Church had brought no great accession of strength; in some ways it had added to the empire's burdens and divisions. Christianization had also accelerated the downwards drift in the social origin of the empire's cultural impulses. Christian culture was a unity, but despite the efforts of Christian intellectuals, it was a unity which took its colouring from the base. The culture of the fourth- and fifth-century empire was artisanal. The old self- confident republican elitism was gone. Higher education and secular literature remained almost entirely in pagan hands. But it was a paganism not only in decay but under constant attack. The murder of the pagan teacher Hypatia at Alexandria in 415 was only one example of the pressures and perils which faced non-Christian intellectuals. Many, like the poet Cyrus of Panopolis, became converts to escape vindictive treatment. The Christians do not seem to have been willing or able to present a cultural alternative at this level. They allowed the great classical universities to decline, then closed them down: Alexandria in 517, the school of Athens in 529. Some pagan analysts, like the historian Zosimus, were quite convinced that Christianity was wrecking the empire. What did the Christians have to say to this? Nothing. When they came to write secular history, as Procopius and Agathias did in Justinian's time, they left religion out of it, so dominated were they still by pagan theory.
The story might have been different. There were elements in Christianity at the beginning of the fifth century striving to create a distinctive Christian higher culture on Origenist lines. Their frustration and destruction was very largely the work of one man, in whom tendencies implicit in the work of Ambrose and Jerome were carried a decisive stage further. Augustine was the dark genius of imperial Christianity, the ideologue of the Church-State alliance, and the fabricator of the medieval mentality. Next to Paul, who supplied the basic theology, he did more to shape Christianity than any other human being.
Yet he is a difficult man to assess, partly because, like Paul, his ideas were steadily changing under the impact of events, cogitation and controversy. He admitted: 'I am the sort of man who writes because he has made progress, and who makes progress by writing.' The events of his own lifetime were spectacular and somberly provocative of thought. He was born at Souk Arras in Algeria in 354, in a middle-class family; became a professor of rhetoric at Carthage; pursued his public career in Rome and then in Ambrose's Milan, where he became a Christian; was raised to the Bishopric of Hippo (near Bone), where he led the struggle against the Donatists; witnessed, from Africa, the sack of Rome in 410; spent ten years fighting the Pelagians; and then in his old age saw the Vandals overrun North Africa. Augustine wrote an enormous amount, much of it influenced by the events of his own day and his personal experiences. And a great deal of this writing survived in its original form. For a thousand years Augustine was the most popular of the Fathers; medieval European libraries contained over 500 complete manuscripts of his City of God, and there were, for instance, twenty-four printed editions between 1467-95. Above all, Augustine wrote about himself: he issued his so-called Confessions in 397, two years after he became a bishop. He was a tremendous egoist: it is characteristic of him that his spiritual autobiography should have been written in the form of a gigantic address to God.
Yet it is arguable that Augustine's references to himself hide more than they reveal. His Confessions is one of the few works of classical literature still read today because it centres around a personal relationship, between the young, sinful Augustine and his pious Christian mother, Monica (his father, Patrick, is virtually ignored), and because it describes the author's efforts to overcome the sexual impulse. These are transcendental themes, fascinating in any age.
But it is not clear that either had much actual bearing on Augustine's life and spiritual development. It is true that Augustine, aged seventeen, took a regular concubine, who bore him a son. But there is no evidence that he was ever a libertine. The arrangement was normal at the time; later, Pope Leo used to say that a young man's desertion of his concubine was the first step to godliness.
Augustine seems to have been if anything undersexed, and to have had a very limited interest in worldliness. The notion that he turned from the pleasures of the classical culture to the austerities of Christianity is false. Augustine was always a person with a very strong and austere religious bent, which he plainly inherited from his mother. The question was, what precise direction would this religious impulse take? For most of Augustine's youth and early manhood he was a Manichee. The Manichees were not really Christians at all.
Mani was a late third-century Mesopotamian ecstatic, who had combined Montanism with eastern elements into a new synthetic religion. He had been executed by the Persians in 276, but his cult had spread east to China, where it was very influential, and west into the Mediterranean. It had reached
Augustine's home territory about sixty years before his birth. Our knowledge of Manicheism, from recently discovered Coptic and Chinese sources, is still fragmentary. Like Gnosticism, it was dualist. But it was characterized by intense pessimism about the potentialities of human nature and its inherent goodness, relieved only by confidence in the existence of a godly elite. Manichees were passionate, self- disciplined, righteous and obstinate. They demanded an exceptionally long catechumenate: Augustine became a 'hearer' aged twenty, and remained one for nine years - he never graduated to the 'elect'. Manichees were secretive and had their own personal networks of contacts. That was one chief reason why they were hated by all established regimes. Except for brief intervals, they were never tolerated by any government, whatever its racial, religious or ideological complexion. For over a millenium they were savagely persecuted by both Byzantine and Chinese emperors; and they inspired or influenced innumerable riotous heresies in the European Middle Ages. They were also, at times, secretively influential. Augustine himself went to Rome, and later Milan, on the Manichee 'net', a freemasonry which provided him with contacts and jobs. It is not absolutely clear why he became a Christian convert. One factor was his health - bouts of psychosomatic asthma which became serious enough to prevent him from pursuing a career demanding public oratory in the law courts and government service. Another was clearly the massive personality of Ambrose. It was the bishop himself who led Augustine into the deep, dark pool of the Milan cathedral baptistry and pushed him under, stark naked, three times, before clothing him in a white robe and handing him a candle. The service was solemn and portentous, preceded by the first lessons in the catechism, still regarded as secret, at least in part, and highly minatory in tone. Under Ambrose, Augustine felt he was joining a great and awesome organization, with enormous potential. But he carried with him the marks of his Manichee background: thirty years later, one of his opponents, Julian of Eclanum, claimed that his twisted views on sex were the direct result of his Manichee training.
Julian also called him poenus, 'the African'. And this, also, is a fair point. Augustine was the product of a Carthaginian environment as well as Manichee formation. Though an excellent Latinist, he lacked a wider culture. He knew almost no Greek, less even than Jerome. He found no difficulty in sorting out Trinitarian notions; he lifted the problem straight out of its Greek complexities, which he dismissed. Augustine's Christianity was Punic. As the hammer of the Donatists, he is assumed to have confronted its localism, or regionalism, with a wider international outlook. But this is only partly true. Augustine retained certain strong African characteristics, which merged with his Manichee strain: severity, lack of compromise, intolerance, courage, profound faith. He invented a kind of Christian nationalism which sprang from his Carthaginian roots. Thus Carthage was, in the end, to conquer Rome, as Troy, through Aeneas, had conquered Greece.
What Augustine absorbed in Ambrosian Milan, what he brought back to Africa, and what he opposed to Donatist particularism, was the new sense of the universality of the Church which the Constantine revolution had made possible. In Milan, Augustine had seen the Church, through the person of a shrewd and magisterial prelate, helping to run an empire. His creative mind leapt ahead to draw conclusions and outline possibilities. In Milan the Church was already behaving like an international organization; it would soon be universal. It was already coextensive with the empire; it would ultimately be coextensive with humanity, and thus impervious to political change and the vicissitudes of fortune. This was God's plan. Augustine had a historical view of human development. There were six ages: man was now living
in the last, between the first and second comings of Christ, when Christianity would gradually envelop the world, as preparation for the final and seventh age. Against the background of this concept, the Donatists seemed ridiculously petty. They had grasped the seriousness of Christianity. But, by worrying about what particular bishops had done at a particular time and in a particular place, they had lost sight of the enormous, objective scale of the faith, its application to all places, times, situations.
'The clouds roll with thunder,' Augustine wrote, 'that the House of the Lord shall be built throughout the earth; and these frogs sit in their marsh and croak - "We are the only Christians!"' Moreover, the Donatists had got the wrong notion of the world. Because of their obsession with their own limited local predicament and history, they saw the world as hostile and themselves as an alternative to society. But the world was there to be captured; and Christianity was not the anti-society - it was society. Led by the elect, its duty was to transform, absorb and perfect all existing bonds of human relations, all human activities and institutions, to regularize and codify and elevate every aspect of life. Here was the germ of the medieval idea of a total society, with the church permeating everything. Was she not the Mother of All? 'It is You,' he wrote, 'who make wives subject to their husbands ... you set husbands over their wives Join sons to their parents by a freely-granted slavery, and set parents above their sons in a pious domination. You link brothers to each other by religious bonds tighter than blood. ... You teach slaves to be loyal to their masters, masters to be more inclined to persuade than to punish. You link citizens to citizen, nation to nation, you bind all men together in remembrance of their first parents, not just by social bonds but by common kinship. You teach kings to rule for the benefit of their people, and warn the peoples to be subservient to their kings.'
But the idea of a total Christian society necessarily included the idea of a compulsory society. People could not choose to belong or not to belong. That included the Donatists. Augustine did not shrink from the logic of his position. Indeed, to the problem of coercing the Donatists he brought much of their own steely resolution and certitude, the fanaticism they themselves displayed, and the willingness to use violence in a spiritual cause. To internationalize Africa, he employed African methods - plus, of course, imperial military technology. When Augustine became a bishop in the mid-390s, the Donatist church was huge, flourishing, wealthy and deeply rooted. Even after a long bout of imperial persecution, inspired by Augustine, the Donatists were still able to produce nearly 300 bishops for the final attempt at compromise at Carthage in 411. Thereafter, in the course of the two decades before Vandals overran the littoral, the back of the Donatist church was broken by force. Its upper-class supporters joined the establishment. Many of its rank and file were driven into outlawry and brigandage. There were many cases of mass suicide.
Augustine watched the process dry-eyed. Of course the times were horrific. The late empire was a totalitarian state, in some ways an oriental despotism. Antinomial elements were punished with massive force. State torture, supposedly used only in serious cases such as treason, was in fact employed whenever the State willed. Jerome describes horrible tortures inflicted on a woman accused of adultery. A vestal virgin who broke her vows might be flogged, then buried alive. The state prisons were equipped with the eculeus, or rack; and a variety of devices including und, for laceration, red-hot plates and whips loaded with lead. Ammianus gives many instances. And the State, to enforce uniformity, employed a large and venal force of secret policemen dressed as civilians, and informers, or delators. Much of the terminology of the late-imperial police system passed into the language of European enforcement, through the Latin phrases of the Inquisition. Augustine was the conduit from the ancient world. Why not? he would ask. If the State used such methods for its own miserable purposes, was not the Church entitled to do the same and more for its own far greater ones? He not only accepted, he became the theorist of, persecution; and his defences were later to be those on which all defences of the Inquisition rested.
We must not imagine that Augustine was necessarily a cruel man. Like many later inquisitors, he disliked unnecessary violence and refinements of torture. He thought heretics should be examined 'not by stretching them on the rack, not by scorching them with flames or furrowing their flesh with iron claws, but by beating them with rods'. He deplored, too, the dishonesty of using paid informers and agents provocateurs. But he insisted that the use of force in the pursuit of Christian unity, and indeed total religious conformity, was necessary, efficacious, and wholly justified. He admitted he had changed his mind on this point. He wrote to a Donatist friend that he had seen his own town, originally Donatist, 'brought over to the Catholic unity by fear of the imperial edicts'. That had convinced him. In fact heretics in their hearts welcomed persecution: they would say 'fear made us become earnest to examine the truth ... the stimulus of fear startled us from our negligence'. And then, this was Christ's own way. Had not he, 'by great violence', 'coerced' Paul into Christianity? Was not this the meaning of the text from Luke, 14:23: 'Compel them to come in'? It was Augustine who first drew attention to this, and a number of other convenient texts, to be paraded through the centuries by the Christian apologists of force. He also had the inquisitorial emphasis:
'The necessity for harshness is greater in the investigation, than in the infliction, of punishment'; and again: ' ... it is generally necessary to use more rigour in making inquisition, so that when the crime has been brought to light, there may be scope for displaying clemency.' For the first time, too, he used the analogy with the State, indeed appealed to the orthodoxy of the State, in necessary and perpetual alliance with the Church in the extirpation of dissidents. The Church unearthed, the State castigated. The key word was disdplina - very frequent in his writings. If discipline were removed, there would be chaos: 'Take away the barriers created by the laws, and men's brazen capacity to do harm, their urge to self- indulgence, would rage to the full. No king in his kingdom, no general with his troops, no husband with his wife, no father with his son, could attempt to put a stop, by any threats or punishments, to the freedom and the sheer, sweet taste of sinning.'
Here, first articulated, is the appeal of the persecuting Church to all the authoritarian elements in society, indeed in human nature. Nor did Augustine operate solely at the intellectual level. He was a leading bishop, working actively with the State in the enforcement of imperial uniformity. We have a vignette of him at Carthage in 399, when imperial agents arrived to close down pagan shrines, preaching to excited mobs: 'Down with the Roman gods!' Perhaps more sinister is Augustine's contact with authoritarian elements in Spain, already a centre of Christian rigorism and orthodox violence. There, in 385, the Bishop of Avila, Priscillian, a notable ascetic and preacher, had been accused of Gnosticism, Manicheism and moral depravity, had been indicted under the imperial law of witchcraft, tried at Bordeaux, and brought to the imperial court at Trier. There, under torture, he and his companions confessed they had studied obscene doctrines, held meetings with depraved women at night, and prayed
naked. Despite the protests of a leading Gaulish bishop, Martin of Tours, they were executed - the first instance we have both of the slaughter of 'heretics' and of witch-hunting under Christian auspices. The episode aroused indignation, notably that of Ambrose, and provoked a reaction. But it did not end religious persecution in Spain; on the contrary, it was the beginning. Spain was already staging pogroms of Jews by the time Augustine became a bishop. And twenty years later we find him in correspondence with ferocious Spanish heresy-hunter, Paul Orosius, about the best means of winkling out heretics not only in Spain but at the other end of the Mediterranean in Palestine.
Augustine changed the approach of orthodoxy to divergence in two fundamental ways. The first, with which we have already dealt, was the justification of constructive persecution: the idea that a heretic should not be expelled but, on the contrary, be compelled to recant and conform, or be destroyed - 'Compel them to come in.' His second contribution was in some ways even more sinister because it implied constructive censorship. Augustine believed that it was the duty of the orthodox intellectual to identify incipient heresy, bring it to the surface and expose it, and so force those responsible either to abandon their line of inquiry altogether or accept heretical status.
These were the tactics Augustine employed against Pelagius and his followers. Augustine must have seen Pelagius briefly at the great confrontation in Carthage in 411, which Pelagius attended. But the men never met or conversed. They were roughly the same age and had gone to Rome -Pelagius from Britain - at almost the same time. But Pelagius had stayed there, a pious, well-educated layman, much in demand in high-born ascetic circles. He had many powerful supporters among the aristocracy and a number of rich, young and earnest followers. Basically, Pelagius was a reformer. Against the prevailing trend of his age, he looked back to Origen and the idea of Christianity as a great moral force changing and improving society, helping men to become more worthy, more socially useful and responsible. He thought the constricting force of the pagan social habits of the past could be removed. Christianity would become an active, ameliorative element not only among imperial citizens, but among the barbarians without, and the semi-barbarians within, its frontiers. Rich Christians should give away their money to the poor, set a good example, lead exemplary lives. Like Origen, he thought there was no such thing as a completely lost soul. The road to improvement was open to all. It was wrong to say: 'God's commands are too difficult to be carried out.' The fall of Rome, from which he fled, first to Africa, then to the more liberal East, had not dismayed him. It confirmed the need for reform, to create new structures. What mattered was the potentiality of man, his freedom to choose good, and the marvellous virtues with which God had endowed him, sometimes buried deep but waiting to be unearthed. Pelagius had a classical sense of the resources and authority of the human mind. Being a Latinized colonial, he had perhaps more faith in the qualities that had made the empire than its frightened fifth-century ruling class. After the sack of Rome he wrote, in 414, to a wealthy and pious woman, Demetrias, a message of hope and encouragement. Of course, he argued, man could save himself, in the next world as well as in this.
'We make the God of knowledge guilty of twofold ignorance - of not knowing what he has made, and not knowing what he has commanded. As if in forgetfulness of human frailty, which he made, he had laid upon men commandments which they could not bear ... so that God seems to have been seeking not so much our salvation as our punishment. ... No one knows better the measure of our strength than he who gave us our strength; and no one has a better understanding of what is within our power than he who endowed us with the very resources of our power. He has not willed to command anything impossible, for he is righteous; and he will not condemn a man for what he could not help, for he is holy.'
The Christian should have heroic fortitude like Job. And he should have compassion, should 'feel the pain of others as if it were his own, and be moved to tears by the grief of other men'.
With much of this the young Augustine might have not have disagreed. His earliest writings show an insistence on free will which was close to Pelagius's own. Later, as a militant bishop and persecutor, Augustine developed a grim determinism of his own. He took from Paul's epistle to the Romans a theory of grace and election which was not wholly unlike Calvin's. 'This is the predestination of the saints,' he wrote, 'the prescience and preparation of the benefits of God, whereby whoever are set free are most certainly set free. And where are the rest left by the just judgment of God, save in that mass of perdition, where were left the men of Tyre and the Sidonians, who were also capable of belief, had they but seen those wonderful works of Christ?' Every event was charged with a precise meaning as a deliberate act of God, of mercy for the elect, or judgment for the damned. A 'divine decree' had established 'an unshakeable number of the elect' who were 'permanently inscribed in the archive of the father'. What role had man's own efforts to play in this process?
Very little. Deuteronomy warned, did it not: 'Say not in thy heart, My strength and the power of my hand has wrought this great wonder - but thou shalt remember the Lord thy God, for He it is who gives the strength to do great deeds.' Augustine was powerfully struck by a case he heard of- a man of eighty-four, of exemplary piety, who had lived a life of religious observance with his wife for a quarter of a century, and then had suddenly bought a dancing-girl for his pleasure, and so lost eternity. Was not this the hand of God, the fatal absence of grace, without which the human will was impotent?
Augustine's attention was first drawn to Pelagius by Jerome, who was still engaged in stamping out Origen's belief in the perfectibility of the soul, and who instantly recognized in Palagius a modern Origenist. Augustine saw in Pelagius a form of arrogance, a rebellion against an inscrutable Deity by an undue stress on man's powers. To Augustine, the duty of man was to obey God's will, as expressed through his Church. He wrote: 'Give what thou commandest, and command what thou wilt.' He noted, significantly, that Pelagius 'could not endure these words of mine'. And then, Jerome prompted him - a characteristic touch this - had not Pelagius, 'that corpulent dog, weighed down with Scotch porridge', denied original sin? To Augustine, original sin was important not so much for its own sake but because it influenced the theory of baptism, which to any African, involved in the Donatist affair, was a crucial test of orthodoxy. As a matter of fact it is hard to discover when, before Augustine, the Church had accepted original sin as a matter of faith. Tertullian had used the phrase (it was, indeed, a very African concept) but had specifically denied that children were born in sin. Since then, the practice of infant baptism had become common, and was tending to be general.
Once Augustine concentrated on the baptismal point, he seems to have become determined to drive Pelagius and his followers out of the Church, or enforce from them an abject submission. It is not even clear that Pelagius opposed infant baptism; as always with men branded as heretics, only snatches of his works survive, embedded in refutations of them. It was his disciple Caelestius who first appears to have raised the baptismal point, and he insisted, under pressure, that the issue was a matter simply for debate: 'On the subject of original sin and its transmission, I have already asserted that I have heard many persons of acknowledged position in the Catholic Church deny it altogether; and on the other hand many affirm it; it may fairly indeed be deemed a matter for inquiry, but not a heresy. I have always maintained that infants require baptism. What else does he want?' What Augustine wanted was what he had already obtained in the case of the Donatists, absolute condemnation followed by total submission - monitored by State enforcement. He did not want discussion. 'Far be it from the Christian rulers of the earthly commonwealth that they should harbour any doubt on the ancient Christian faith ... certain and firmly- grounded on this faith they should, rather, impose on such men as you are fitting discipline and punishment.' And again: 'Those whose wounds are hidden should not for that reason be passed over in the doctor's treatment. ... They are to be taught; and in my opinion this can be done with the greatest ease when the teaching of truth is aided by the fear of severity.'
Thus Augustine hunted Pelagius and his followers. He had them condemned twice in Africa. Pelagius, a reformer anxious to help the Church, desperately concerned lest his efforts should be frustrated by accusations of heresy, went to the East, to the much freer intellectual climate of Palestine, where debate was still possible. Meanwhile, he provided assurances and confessions of faith to any council or synod which asked for one, and to the Bishop of Rome. Rome was inclined to accept Pelagius at his word; he had the backing of powerful families, and there is evidence they were able to influence, for a time, the imperial enforcement authorities. But the will of the Africans prevailed. They brought pressure successfully, first on the Bishop of Rome, then on the emperor. Finally, they resorted to direct bribery: eighty fine Numidian stallions, bred on episcopal estates in Africa, were shipped to Italy and distributed among the various imperial cavalry commanders whose squadrons, in the last resort, imposed Augustine's theory of grace. To the imperial authorities, the Pelagians were represented as disturbers of the public peace, dangerous innovators, men anxious to dispossess the rich and redistribute property, no more acceptable to the orthodox of Church and State than the Donatists. Pelagian cells in Britain and Spain, Sicily, Rhodes and Palestine were identified and broken up.
Some Pelagians hit back at Augustine. One young follower, Julian of Eclanum, engaged in spirited controversy with the angry old bishop. From their exchanges, fragmentary alas, Augustine emerges in an unpleasant light, a clever man stooping low for the purpose of vulgar appeal, remorselessly exploiting popular prejudice, an anti-intellectual, a hater of classical culture, a mob orator, and a sex-obsessive. In the infinitive wisdom of God, he noted, the genitals were appropriately made the instruments for the transmission of original sin: 'Ecce unde! That's the place! That's the place from which the first sin is passed on!' Adam had defied God - and for every man born, the shame at the uncontrollable stirring of the genitals was a reminder of, and a fitting punishment for, the original crime of disobedience. Did not every man, he asked his cringing congregation, feel shame at having a wet dream? Of course he did. By contrast, Julian's line seems a straightforward deployment of elementary classical reason:
'You ask me why I would not consent to the idea that there is a sin that is part of human nature. I answer: it is improbable. It is untrue. It is unjust and impious. It makes it seem as if the devil were the maker of men. It violates and destroys the freedom of the will ... by saying that men are so incapable of virtue that
in the very womb of their mothers they are filled with bygone sins ... and, what is disgusting as it is blasphemous, this view of yours fastens, as its most conclusive proof, on the common decency with which we cover our genitals.'
Julian argued that sex was a kind of sixth sense, a form of neutral energy which might be used well or ill. 'Really?' replied Augustine, 'is that your experience? So you would not have married couples restrain that evil I refer, of course, to your favourite good? So you would have them jump into bed whenever they like, whenever they felt stirred by desire? Far be it from them to postpone it till bedtime ... if this is the sort of married life you lead, don't drag up your experience in debate.'
Augustine's own life ended in darkness. The Vandals broke into Africa in 429, and Augustine died next year in his episcopal city, already under siege. 'He lived to see cities overthrown and destroyed,' wrote his biographer, Possidius, 'churches denuded of priests and ministers, virgins and monks dispersed, some dying of torture, others by the sword, others captured and losing innocence of soul and body, and faith itself, in cruel slavery; he saw hymns and divine praises ceasing in the churches, the buildings themselves often burned down, the sacraments no longer wanted or, if wanted, priests to administer them hard to find. ...' In the City of God Augustine had already contrasted the vulnerable earthly citadel with the imperishable kingdom of Christianity. Man should set his sights on the second; nothing was to be hoped for on earth. In his last, unfinished, work, he examined theodicy and the whole problem of evil. It was nonsense to suppose, he wrote, as the Pelagians did, that God was equitable in a human sense. His justice was as inscrutable as any other aspect of his nature. Human ideas of equity were like 'dew in the desert'. Human suffering, deserved or not, occurred because God was angry. This life, for mortals, is the wrath of God. The world is a small-scale Hell'. 'This is the Catholic view: a view that can show a just God in so many pains and in such agonies of tiny babies.' Man must simply learn to accept suffering and injustice. There was nothing he could do about either. Whereas Pelagius had portrayed the Christian as a grown-up man, a son no longer leaning on the Father, but capable of carrying out his commands by free will - emancipatusa deo, as he put it - Augustine saw the human race as helpless children. He constantly used the image of the suckling baby. Humanity was utterly dependent on God. The race was prostrate, and there was no possibility that it might raise itself by its own merits. That was the sin of pride - Satan's sin. Mankind's posture must be that of total humility. Its only hope lay in God's grace.
Augustine thus bridges the gap between the humanistic optimism of the classical world and the despondent passivity of the Middle Ages. The mentality he expressed was to become the dominant outlook of Christianity, and so to encompass the whole of European society for many centuries. The defeat of the Pelagians was to be an important landmark in this process. To what extent Augustine's own Manichean pessimism was responsible for this dark coloration of Christian thought is hard to measure; certainly, if we contrast his philosophy with Paul's, it can be seen that Augustine, not Pelagius, was the heresiarch - the greatest of all, in terms of his influence. But Christian society in Augustine's age was already moving in this direction. By accepting the Constantinian State, the Church had embarked on the process of coming to terms with a world from which it had hitherto stood apart. It had postponed the construction of the perfect society until after the parousia. Augustine provided an ideology for this change of course, but he did not himself set it. In 398 a curious series of episodes took place in Constantinople. Following a high tide and a series of earth tremors, an official in the imperial army claimed that God had revealed to him that the city would be destroyed. In the second century, a man who spread such superstitions would have been prosecuted: this was precisely why the State had acted against Montanist bishops and 'speakers with tongues'. In 398 there was a very different sequence of events. The official told his bishop, who preached an alarmist sermon. At sunset, a red cloud was seen approaching the city; men thought they could smell sulphur, and many rushed to the churches demanding baptism. The next week there were more alarms, culminating in a general exodus from the city, led by the emperor in person. For several hours Constantinople was deserted, while its terrified inhabitants camped in the fields five miles away. Such human stampedes were to become a feature of medieval Europe. The incident at Constantinople in 398 was an indication that the classical era was over, and that men were now inhabiting a different mental universe.