(Part 4 of a multi-part series on The Moral Triumph of Western Civilization.)
No one knew it was year One in Rome when it arrived. In fact, it wasn’t even considered to be year One until over 500 years later when a sixth-century monk convinced the pope that the birth year of Christ was the greatest in history and that all years prior to that should be “B.C.” or before Christ and those after should be “Anno Domini” or A.D. meaning “year of our lord.”1
At its peak, the Roman Empire covered enormous territory. Virtually all lands west of Persia were part of the empire including Egypt, Greece, Asia Minor, Syria and (now the nations of) Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, and England.
Early on, the Romans had self-governing, republican institutions but the emperors’ desires to conquer and rule eventually overrode democratic governing principles and the “Empire” officially began (generally considered at 27 B.C.). Roman law first considered the interests of the state and the well-being of the individual was subordinated — although “citizens” were granted rights. They willingly sacrificed self-governance for the “peace and security” of the dictatorship. Localities had considerable autonomy with provincial governors installed but required to follow the dictates of the emperor.
Most of these territorial acquisitions were more of a military occupation and had little cultural impact on advanced places like Greece. But in the more barbaric, completely uncivilized areas like (that later became) Algeria, Morocco, Spain, Portugal, France, Switzerland, Belgium and England, the Romans’ conquests lent a civilizing element and was culturally impactful. Latin became the common language in most of those areas of the West. Greek was entrenched in the East and remained the primary language. Latin was later wiped out in Africa by Arabic but variations survived in Spain, Portugal, France and Italy.
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Beyond the persecution of Christians, the Roman Empire was still morally challenged in many areas. Marriage was virtually mandated by the emperors but love was mocked and public affection punished. One senator lost his position because he hugged his wife in public. Augustus issued a “moral” decree that girls had to be at least 10 to be old enough for a marital bed.2
Children were not even considered human until they walked or talked. Slavery, killing humans for entertainment purposes and the hideous practice throwing unwanted infants (usually female or the sickly) into the “village dung heap” were not morally questioned.3 In fact, there were very few “moral” considerations in ancient Rome. In the Colosseum, the blood-thirsty spectators were often disappointed when lions were used as instruments of death for entire families including small children. They preferred wild dogs as these killed much more slowly and “did more dragging and tearing.”4
Slaves did virtually all the work including the teaching of the children of the elite. Even the impoverished could acquire slaves if they quickly grabbed infants tossed into the dung pits then forced them into a life of servitude. The Romans thought a “civilized” life without slaves was a functional impossibility.5
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When English historian Edward Gibbon wrote his 5-volume seminal book, “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” (1776-88), he asserted that Christianity played a major role in the Empire’s demise. Given the moral scrutiny and reflection that accompanied widespread conversions, Christianity likely only delivered the finishing blow to a society already on a path to ruin.
20th century philosopher, Will Durant, says that Rome’s fall was likely etched in stone centuries before its official collapse in 476 A.D. “because the state defended wealth against poverty, fought to capture slaves, taxed toil to support luxury, and failed to protect its people from famine, pestilence, invasion, and destitution.”6
Rome’s history is one of perpetually ambitious emperors obsessed with the conquest and control of new territories that kept their legions very busy indeed. The need for a large military force was very expensive but also kept rural Roman farmers in the legion and away from working their farms. This both satisfied the imperialistic emperors’ desires while simultaneously enriching the Roman elite: The farmers, in order to keep their families from destitution, were forced to sell out their neglected properties to the Roman elite who then compelled slaves to work these farms (to provide a primary food source for the city of Rome itself).
After subjugating the peoples it conquered to provide unearned wealth to a “lazier, more indulgent” elite, Rome began to literally rot from the inside out. With an economic system that denied the enslaved producers the ability to retain the fruits of their efforts and the enormous cost to defend its massive border territories, Rome’s demise was preordained centuries before it finally collapsed.
But if there was any single individual of power in the Roman Empire who gives credence to Gibbon’s contention and whom changed the course of history by giving an enormous boost to the spread of Christianity, it was certainly — Constantine.
At the end of the third century, Diocletian (the Augustus or overall emperor) divided the Roman Empire into four mini-empires and appointed a junior-emperor or Caesar in each. In 305 A.D. Diocletian’s abdication for health reasons set off a power struggle among these Caesars.
Constantius was a Caesar in the western area (Britain and France) and became Augustus after Diocletian. When he suddenly became ill and lay dying, Constantius declared his son, Constantine, as Augustus which was immediately supported by his army as Constantine was a skilled general. It wasn’t long before this appointment started a civil war among the other Caesars.
It culminated in a battle that is enormously important in the genesis of Western Civilization.
After Caesar Maxentius proved victorious in consolidating the eastern region of the Empire, he now had to face his brother-in-law Constantine who was marching into Italy. Just before over 100,000 troops prepared to face each other at Milvian Bridge, Constantine had a vision of seeing a burning (Christian) cross in the sky. Following up on his premonition, he had his troops paint a Christian symbol on their shields. During the ferocious battle, Maxentius’ troops were forced to retreat across the bridge. It collapsed under the weight of armor and horses and Maxentius drowned.
Constantine attributed this victory, one that ultimately consolidated his role as Augustus, to his Christian vision. Within a few years he would issue an edict that Christianity was now an official religion in the Empire. He stopped all crucifixions out of respect for the meaning of the cross to Christians. He convened the First Council of Nicaea that produced a statement of Christian belief known today as the Nicene Creed. Constantine and his mother, Helena, had the Church of the Nativity built in Bethlehem commemorating the birth of Christ and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre built in Jerusalem over what was believed to be the tomb of Jesus.
Though Constantine’s embrace of Christianity may have had political undercurrents (he wanted a unifying element for the divided Empire), he eventually (officially) converted himself and was baptized shortly before his death.
Within in a generation, Christianity would go from a highly persecuted “faith to a powerful world religion.”7 In another 50 years, the number of Christians would exceed 30 million.8
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The Roman Empire was as innovative as any previous culture in history. It dredged deep water harbors from Spain to Egypt to Sicily that would be especially beneficial for seafaring ships in these regions centuries later. Rome gave the world the first rough sanitary systems, aqueducts, architectural arches for bridge and building support, strong durable roads and significant elements of modern governance and law like a deliberative Senate, habeas corpus, affidavits and pro bono publico.
But Rome was also a society of unfathomable cruelty, widespread slavery, decadence, misery and poverty. There are perhaps no greater examples in all of history of God using human achievements and human depravities, (a.k.a. Roman Empire) as rich planting ground to ultimately spread His message.
Roman conquests brought with them relative “peace” by halting most barbarism in those conquered lands. And without “state-of-the-art” roads (though increasingly in disrepair), Christianity may have never spread so widely in the continent later known as Europe.
Rome surprisingly made the field fertile for the “Good News” of Christ by creating deep hopelessness among the enslaved and most of the poverty-stricken population held down by oppressive state control. As we shall see, the centuries following Constantine’s conversion would give rise to scholasticism, universities, the birth of capitalism, a Christian governance split between the East and West and challenges from a new religion in the Middle East called Islam.
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1- Lord, Lewis. The Year One. U.S. News and World Report. January 8, 2001. P. 38.
7- Sheler, Jeffrey L. Days of Martyrs. U.S. News and World Report. April 16, 2001. P. 41.