This is Part II of a series of posts in response to questions raised by AC Grayling. The background and the questions are addressed in Part I. All will be in the "History" category.
Roman Culture, the Human Person, and Insurrection
The ethics of the Roman Empire, in practice, did not reflect the Utopian image of the classics. Slavery was common, and life was cheap. As summarized on a PBS webpage about Rome in the first century, although life was good for the wealthy:
"Poorer Romans, however, could only dream of such a life. Sweating it out in the city, they lived in shabby, squalid houses that could collapse or burn at any moment. If times were hard, they might abandon newborn babies to the streets, hoping that someone else would take them in as a servant or slave. Poor in wealth but strong in numbers, they were the Roman mob, who relaxed in front of the popular entertainment of the time – chariot races between opposing teams, or gladiators fighting for their life, fame and fortune."
The persecution of Christianity is an example of the low value that the first century Roman Empire placed on the human person, although not the only example. According to the Talmud, when Roman soldiers attacked Jerusalem in 70 a.d., they did not merely destroy the Jerusalem temple; they catapulted a pig’s head onto the altar, insulting the Jewish faith as they attacked their temple. Roman methods of that type did not endear the Roman government to outsiders, and those outsiders, increasingly, were moving into Rome yet not becoming Roman.
Revolts against the Romans were brewing already during the life of Christ. At the time of the crucifixion, the Gospels tell us that at least some of Jesus' disciples believed that he would seek to overthrow Roman control of Jerusalem, and it appears that one of the things that may have prompted Judas to betray him was the discovery that Jesus did not plan such an attack. Barabbas, the prisoner who was released on demands of the crowd in preference over Jesus, is described in Mark's Gospel as being "bound with them that had made insurrection with him, who had committed murder in the insurrection" (Mark 15:7), and the crowd preferred that (Mark 15:11-15). Widespread opposition to the Roman government existed long before Christianity spread to Rome.
As another example of the brutality of Roman culture, in late 249, the emperor Decius issued an order that the entire empire was to make sacrifices to the Roman gods. Christians may have been particularly targeted for their belief that Christianity was the exclusive way to salvation. The emperor’s order was issued to the entire population – men and women, adults and children, citizens and non-citizens. Fabian, the bishop of Rome, was martyred in January 250. In Carthage, the order was effective in April, 250, enforced at first by exile and later by torture in prison to those who would not comply, including children.
However, as St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote in the early second century, in his Epistle to the Romans, "Christianity lies in achieving greatness in the face of a world's hatred." And as Tertullian wrote somewhat later, the blood of the martyrs became the seed of the Church.
A Christian View of Philosophy
As the Church grew, although it opposed Roman mistreatment of Christianity and of the poor, the Church absorbed the better side of classical philosophy. That can be seen already in the Acts of the Apostles, with St. Paul preaching at the Areopagus (Acts 17:16-34).
It can be seen more clearly in the second century, with the work of St. Clement of Alexandria. As a young man, Clement of Alexandria had traveled from place to place, learning from “blessed and truly remarkable men” in Greece, south Italy, Lebanon, Egypt, Assyria, and Palestine, before he “found rest” in Alexandria, Egypt.
In reaching the culture of second century Alexandria for the Gospel message of salvation, Clement accepted the truth he found in Greek philosophy as indicative of God’s creation of man in His image, planting the seed of truth in all people. He saw Plato and Aristotle as preparing the Greek people for the true message of the Gospel, just as the Old Testament had prepared the Hebrews.
Christianity thus began to synthesize the Hebrew concept of the human person as having intrinsic value, created in the image of God, with that part of Greek philosophy consistent with Christian values. In so doing, they combined what they found in the Neo-Platonic view of eternity with the Jewish (Pharisaic) belief in the bodily resurrection of the dead. They synthesized the physical, metaphoric Hebrew (in which one of the many words for "dance" becomes the word for "celebration", and the word "to burn" also means "to love" and "to hate") with the logical Greek. Both Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity trace their roots back to that transforming combination of Hebrew and Greek cultures that developed in first century Palestine. Christianity addressed that combination as the working of God in the hearts and minds of the Greek and Roman people. The early Christians thus presented Christianity as the fulfillment of classical Greek philosophy and as providing what was missing in it.
Christianity and the Roman Government
The picture of Roman government as being under Christian control from the time of Constantine is not accurate. During the fourth century, when Julian became emperor, he returned to paganism and tried to return the empire to pagan worship. The Arian Valens became emperor in 364 and began to travel through the eastern empire compelling churches to accept Arianism.
By the early fourth century, Rome was a city of about 2,000,000 people, some pagan and some Christian. However, it was no longer the city of the emperors, who more often lived in Constantinople, Milan and Trier. The Western Empire was in deplorable condition by then. Roman justice was corrupt, and the Roman world was in decay.
Constantinople arose as a second capital, eventually called the "New Rome", as people with wealth and education left Rome for reasons that had little or nothing to do with the rise of Christianity. The western empire did not so much collapse as it relocated. It was thus that St. Ambrose became pastor to the western emperor's family in Milan, and St. John Chrysostom became pastor to the eastern emperor's family in Constantinople. St. Basil the Great was educated in Athens together with the future pagan emperor Julian.
As I mentioned on an earlier post, the Church Fathers were often in conflict with Arian and Pagan emperors during the fourth century, after Constantine. Constantine's conversion led to an end to the severity of persecutions that had existed in the second and third centuries, but it did not immediately make Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. The eastern emperor Valens, whose embarrassing battle against the Goths could be viewed as a major development in the decline of Rome, opposed the Catholic churches. Indeed, a comparison of Valens with his contemporary St. Basil illustrates the changing roles of Church and State during the fourth century. As the regal and brilliant Basil, caring for the poor and the sick, faced the unimpressive but egoistical Valens, one might question which of the two men was truly imperial in the eyes of the people.
Here is a discussion of this from one of the most respected textbooks of Early Church history, The Rise of Christianity by W.H.C. Frend, Fortress Press (Frend was Emeritus Professor of Ecclesiastical History, University of Glasgow, Scotland, an expert in the history of the Early Church, and a fellow of the British Academy from 1983):
The [Edict of Milan of 313 A.D.] marks the end of the era of the persecutions. It also marks the first steps toward the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the empire. Nominally it proclaimed complete religious freedom beginning, "Since we saw that freedom of worship ought not to be denied, but that to each man's judgment and will the right should be given to care for sacred things according to each man's free choice. . . ." Hence, unrestricted freedom was granted to the Christians along with complete and free restoration of all church property still remaining in the hands of the state or of individuals. . . .An attentive reader might have caught an echo of the demands for complete toleration for all religions made by Western Apologists from Tertullian to Lactantius. "It is not in the nature of religion to compel religion," Tertullian had urged, and Lactantius had claimed that "to worship as one pleased was a privilege of nature." . . . (Pg. 483)
It was not until the emperor Theodosius, in the late fourth century, that the state began to suppress paganism and heretical sects. Frend says:
"In some ways, Theodosius I (379-95) recalls Constantine." (pg. 635) "The edict that he issued to 'the inhabitants of Constantinople,' but addressed in fact to 'all the inhabitants of the empire' from his headquarters at Thessalonica on 28 February  was strongly Western in outlook. All were ordered to follow 'the form of religion handed down by the apostle Peter to the Romans, and now followed by Bishop Damasus and Peter of Alexandria' described as 'a man of apostolic sanctity.' All other teaching, described as 'heretical poison,' must be abandoned. This was the first step toward enforcing a universal Catholic faith over the whole empire. During the next months, however, Theodosius's ideas as to what Catholicism was would modify in favor of the views of his Eastern subjects. . . . On 10 January 381 Theodosius issued a new edict proclaiming once more the sole orthodoxy of the Nicene faith, forbidding heretics the right of assembly, but omitting any reference to Damasus and Peter (or his successor Timothy, 380-85) as orthodox leaders." (Pp. 636-637)
Even then, the Church did not control the State, but it did begin to function as a moral correction to abuses of power. When the emperor Theodosius ordered the massacre of 7,000 Thessalonicans in retribution for a riot, Ambrose excommunicated the emperor, readmitting him to the Church only after he completed penance. The Church, for the first time, became a force for correction of the State.
This status of the Church as the State religion of the Roman Empire thus was not long lived before Alaric took Rome in 410 A.D. From then until the sixth century, many of the most educated people fled Rome. Not only did the Roman education system collapse over the next 2 or 3 centuries, but it became difficult to even find safe water.
Christianity and Education
The elite education that could be obtained in fourth century Rome, Constantinople, and Athens was valued by Christians whose families could afford it. St. Basil the Great, mentioned above, is an example of that as he was educated with the elite of fourth century society. He studied in Constantinople and then in Athens. He and his close friend and fellow Christian, Gregory, studied together with the young prince Julian, a nephew of Constantinius, who would later be a pagan emperor of fourth century Rome. St. Ambrose, similarly, had an elite education, in his case in Rome.
Upper class Christian girls in fourth century Rome then received the same education as boys in literature, especially studying the classic poets. As soon as Christian girls were able to learn, they began to learn the Bible and to memorize the entire book of Psalms. In the late fourth century, St. Jerome became Bible teacher and spiritual adviser to a group of highly educated Roman women who had chosen an ascetic lifestyle. One of the women, Paula, was a fine Greek scholar, who with her daughters learned Hebrew so that they could sing the Psalms in the original language. Another, Marcella, was described by Jerome in eulogy as someone who knew Scripture as well as anyone in Rome in her day. Christianity did not discourage education among women. Rather, it further educated them in the faith. Jerome wrote: "The unbelieving reader may perhaps laugh at me for dwelling so long on the praises of mere women . . .", a reference to the difference between the Roman view of women in his day and the Christian view of them.
F. Homes Dudden, D.D., in The Life and Times of St. Ambrose, a 2-volume, 755-page scholarly biography published in 1935 by Oxford at the Clarendon Press, offers the following discussion of the fourth century Roman education system, not only as it pertains to men but specifically as it pertained to Christian women:
"The average woman, no doubt, was mainly taken up with her husband, her children, her house, her toilet, and her amusements. There were many, however, who, not content with the common round of social and domestic duties, sought an outlet for their energies in pursuits which until recently had been regarded as inappropriate for females. . . . the intelligent and 'advanced' women, who actively interested themselves in literature and science, in philanthropy and religious work.
"Of those who distinguished themselves in intellectual pursuits a few instances may be mentioned. Serena, the wife of Stilicho, was an enthusiastic student of Greek and Latin literature. Paula, Jerome's friend, was a fine Greek scholar, and learnt Hebrew in order that she might be able to sing the Psalms in that tongue. Blaesilla, Paula's daughter, was even more accomplished than her mother; Jerome says that she rivaled Origen himself in her knowledge of languages. Monnica, mother of Augustine, was profoundly versed in the Sacred Scriptures. Two erudite ladies of Gaul named Hedibia and Algasia applied to Jerome for a solution of various difficulties which they had encountered in their Scriptural studies. Proba, the wife of a Praefect of Rome, constructed a Christian poem out of lines taken entirely or in part from Virgil. Towards the end of the third century Porphyry married a widow named Marcella, who attracted him by her remarkable talent for philosophy; at the beginning of the fifth century Hypatia was lecturing on Platonism at Alexandria. An aunt of the poet Ausonius, despising the ordinary activities of women, devoted herself to the study of medicine. Similarly Nicarete of Constantinople, one of the ladies of Chrysostom's circle, enjoyed a high reputation for skill in the physician's art. With her own hands she used to compound the drugs which she dispensed gratis to the poor, and her admirers claimed that she succeeded in curing many patients who had been abandoned as hopeless by the medical faculty."
In the future, invasions from Goths, Vandals, and others would undermined and eventually destroy the Roman education system. As education became less available, it was in fact the Church that took up the role of educator. However, that was not done in order to undermine another education system but rather in order to educate the clergy. Moreover, the monasteries remained a place where women received some education in literacy, as can be seen from letters from nuns even through the dark ages, as in the case of the letters that St. Boniface received from his sister, preserved in the collection of the Letters of St. Boniface, and as can be seen in the twelfth century in the case of Bl. Hildegard of Bingen, as she was taught to read some Latin in order to chant the Psalms in the offices.
Christianity and the Ethics of Medicine: The Human Body Created in the Image of God
While Plato and Aristotle had never effectively imparted true scientific ethics to the intellectual culture of Greece and Rome, Christianity placed the value of the human person, wealthy and poor alike, at the forefront of its view of classical learning.
The words of Jesus in encounters with the sick laid the basis for the values that Christianity brought to the medical profession. As recorded by St. Luke (himself a doctor), Jesus healed people as his fame grew (Luke 4:40, 5:15, 6:19, 7:7, 17:15). In Luke 13:14-17, Jesus defended the importance of healing the sick as having higher priority than observing a prohibition against working on the Sabbath. In Luke 22:51, Jesus healed the ear of a servant of the high priest whose ear was removed by St. Peter's sword when the crowd came to arrest Jesus. He healed the poor, the lepers, a woman who had had an untreatable flow of blood for 12 years, a condition that would have made her "unclean" under Jewish law of his day (Luke 8:43-47), the outcasts of society, and not only those who would have been considered acceptable in the society of his time and place. Mark's Gospel describes a leper who was healed by Jesus (Mark 1:40-45). In Luke 14:13, he said, "when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind."
In the preceding section of this post, I quoted Homes Dudden's reference Nicarete of Constantinople, a fourth century woman who had a reputation for sometimes successfully treating the sick who were regarded as hopeless by the medical staff, mixing the medications of her day with her own hands. Notice that she was also remembered for treating the poor free of charge. Reflecting the Christian view of the poor, it illustrates Christian medical ethics, which were a departure from the Roman norm.
Basil’s hospitals and asylums, funded by his own wealth and by funds he raised from others, became a virtual town served by his monks. They rivaled the size of State provisions for health and welfare. As Valens, an Arian in opposition to Catholicism, made a donation to Basil's charitable works, the Church was already beginning to take over the government's function of caring for the sick and the poor. That is not because Christianity had less respect for science and medicine than the Romans had, but rather because Christianity placed a high value on the care of the sick and the poor.
Basil cautioned against pity in helping the afflicted, described as follows in Richard Travers Smith’s classic biography St. Basil the Great (at 59, citing Hom. Quod mundanis adhaer):
"A helper who gives way to the impulse of mere feeling seems to him like a pilot, who, when he ought to be directing the crew and fighting against winds and waves, is himself sea-sick. We must use our reason, and help people as we can. Do not therefore aggravate sorrow by your presence. Whoever wants to raise up the afflicted, must be above them: he who falls along with them, requires himself the same aid which he is attempting to bring."
Basil had built charitable institutions on a large enough scale to make the civil power jealous, comprising the equivalent of a small town at Casesarea, including hospitals, asylums for strangers, and other facilities built by contributions that Basil’s eloquence and example attracted.
The Roman medicine that was taught in those days was the same medical science that was accepted by Christianity, as shown in some of the writings of St. Ambrose in the west and as shown in the efforts of St. Basil to provide hospitals in the East. Not only was the science of medicine preserved to the extent possible in the economic environment of the day, but rather the practice of medicine was supported by the Church when Roman support was inadequate.
Homes Dudden, in his biography of St. Ambrose mentioned above, gives the following description of St. Ambrose's knowledge of medicine in the fourth century (with citations to Ambrose's writings in his footnotes):
"The human body excels the bodies of all animals in comeliness and grace. It is an image of the world in miniature, and, like the world, is constituted of the four elements. Ambrose is aware that the brain is the centre of the nervous system and the heart of the arterial, and that the pulse is the index of sickness or health. He gives an account of the action of the heart, describes the process whereby food is assimilated, notices the sympathetic connexion between the brain and the stomach, and enlarges on the physiological effects of intemperance.
Ambrose appears to have known something of medicine, although he emphasizes the fact that he is only an amateur, and not a professional physician. He considers that health is best preserved by a careful diet, and that herbs provide the most efficacious medicines. He attests the value of mandragora juice as a soporific and of opium as an anaesthetic; and thinks that violent desire may be mitigated by hemlock. Garlic has medicinal properties, but is not suitable for ordinary food. He mentions the drug theriac, compounded of dried adders and other constituents; speaks of collyria (eye-salves) and other remedies for diseases of the eye; and refers to a curious remedy for jaundice. One recipe is offered for keeping off mosquitoes -- they will not come near a man who has smeared himself with an ointment made of wormwood boiled in oil."
The medical ethics of today, while they draw from the Hippocratic Oath that is thought possibly to have dated to the fourth century B.C., draw more in practice from Christian medical practice of later centuries. The value that contemporary society places on the importance of making medical treatment available to the poor, the the aged, to the defenseless, finds nothing of its basis in the classic Hippocratic Oath, but rather in the ethics of Christian medicine.
The Decadence of Fourth Century Rome
Paganism continued in the Roman Empire, to some extent at least, until well into the sixth century. However, the pagan side of Roman culture was decadent. St. Augustine’s description of his pre-Christian youth is illustrative. From the age of about 15 to 30, he lived with a woman from Carthage. His son was born during that time. However, when Augustine decided he wanted to be married, he did not consider his mistress to be a suitable wife under the standards of his day. He then became engaged to marry a young girl, too young to legally marry. His mistress left and returned to Africa, and Augustine took another mistress. In 387, torn between his perverse lifestyle and Christianity, Augustine finally became a Christian. In doing so, he did not move away from the literate side of Roman culture.
The Roman Empire’s culture, far from being dominated by Christianity, was in decline. Corrupt Roman courts were no longer trusted by the public. When Augustine became a bishop, bishops sometimes provided an alternative means of deciding civil cases. He often spent all morning, and sometimes the entire day, arbitrating cases. By that means, bishops began to take over a function previously filled by the Roman government, but that was not done by force. Rather, it was the population’s loss of confidence in the existing Roman court system that enabled Christianity to begin to take over that function.
Far from destroying the empire, the Church’s taking over part of the function of the courts, and taking over part of the Government's work in providing for health and welfare, would have helped to sustain the Western Empire during its collapse. It is also important to mention that this collapse was not universal. Indeed, the Eastern Empire, centered in Constantinople, would not see its finest days until centuries to come. Through much of the Middle Ages, Constantinople was to be the richest city in the world.
Augustine wrote extensively after his conversion. In 15 years, from 395 to 410, he wrote 33 books and long letters. Many of his books are masterpieces in which you can see the Neo-Platonic background in which he was educated. The same classical philosophies bore a deep influence in the writings of many masterpieces of theology and philosophy written by Christians in the period after 313 A.D.
Invasions and the Abandonment of Outlying Segments of the Empire
Pagan shrines were not closed until 399. However, the Church faced increasing numbers of heresies, the most prominent among them being Arianism. While Arianism was rejected increasingly among the Romans, it remained strong for another two centuries among the Germanic Goths, and increasing numbers of Germanic immigrants entered Rome, bringing their culture and religion with them.
Although some historians would blame Christianity for not protecting the boarders, present day events should make it clear that protecting a vast boarder of an empire is not possible as a practical matter. The U.S. situation now with Mexico, as one example, is a clear example of the impossibility of protecting a vast boarder when the people outside of that boarder are desperate to come across. What drives that desperation is not so much indicative of a failure on the part of the country being entered as indicative of economic and other forms of devastation in the lands from which the immigrants are coming. Similarly, the move of many Africans into France in recent years is not so much indicative of any failure on the part of the French, but rather it is indicative of the desperate conditions in parts of Africa, which people are fleeing. Similarly, in fourth century Italy, Germanic immigrants, culturally different from the Romans, and who never considered themselves to be Romans, entered Italy in increasing numbers not because of any failure on the part of Rome but rather because of its prosperity.
If the accusation against Christianity is that it was not sufficiently brutal to defend itself, one would have to consider that the brutality of the Roman government in the first century is in fact what turned many of the people within the Roman Empire against Roman military power. It is also important to point out here that Roman authority over Rome itself was not fully abolished; the Goths wanted military power and not necessarily administrative control.
There were vast numbers of the poor within and outside of the City of Rome who viewed the Roman military with the eyes of those who had been held in slavery, persecuted or imprisoned even as children, and otherwise treated abusively during past centuries. Even as barbarians moved into Rome, they did not want to become Romans. This produced an increasing population in Western Europe that was never absorbed into Roman culture and, in fact, did not want to be absorbed into it.
In 406, barbarians of various races (Vandals, Suevi, Alans) invaded Roman Gaul and remained there. Rome began to lose control. On August 24, 410, Alaric's army of Goths entered Rome and sacked it for three days. By that time, barbarian immigrants had been streaming into Italy for a long time, not absorbed into Roman culture, but permanently settling there.
Immersed in the ensuing crisis, the Roman government lost interest in the further reaches of the empire. Britain was among those far reaches. The Roman government departed Britain in 410 for good. Refugees from Rome, from Western Europe as a whole, moved to Africa, Constantinople, and elsewhere.
Based on the nature and values of Christianity as it existed in the Roman Empire at that time, and the limited nature and form of authority it had ever truly held, it is clear that Christianity neither deserves the blame for the collapse of Roman power in the western empire nor deserves the entire credit for the growing wealth and power in the eastern empire. Instead, for reasons beyond the control of the Christian population, and not furthered by its ideals, Rome diminished while Constantinople increased, partly because many people who had the means and the motivation began to settle in the east, together with their wealth.
(Part III will be posted next week-end, time permitting.)