Jesus Never Existed – The Christianizing of the Roman Empire
Diocletian Son of a Slave Makes Good
Diocletian was the product of merit and of the social mobility which was possible in the late third century.
Diocletian ruled the Roman world for over twenty years. Neither mad nor debauched, he (uniquely) retired from power and famously boasted of growing cabbages "with his own hand" in retirement.
Diocletian had recognised that the empire was too vast for one man's autocratic rule and had sensibly divided absolute power between four monarchs. At the same time he put in place a mechanism for orderly succession, with the junior Caesars stepping up to the rank of Augustus and appointing deputy Caesars in turn. Moreover, Diocletian had had the wisdom to choose colleagues and successors on the basis of ability and loyalty, not blood-ties. The tetrarchy provided orderly succession for a generation. The provinces themselves were grouped into a dozen Dioceses, each ruled by a Vicar.
Constantine – Pampered Prince Enters the Ring
As caesar of Britain and Gaul, Constantine's father Constantius had been chosen for the most junior post in the tetrarchy. With his promotion, Constantius dismissed his concubine Helena, the mother of Constantine, and made a politically advantageous marriage to the daughter of Diocletian's colleague Maximian. Constantine himself had been obliged to spend his youth at Nicomedia as 'hostage' in the court of Diocletian.
When the ailing Diocletian stepped down as Augustus after twenty years in 305, Constantine was dismayed that he had been passed over for the position of caesar. Galerius became senior Augustus in the east. Frustrated, and fearful for his life, Constantine fled to Gaul to join his father, and together they campaigned in northern Britain.
Constantius nicknamed 'Chlorus' because of his pale and sickly complexion died at Eburacum (York) the following year and Constantine was 'proclaimed' Augustus by the troops in what was the most marginal of frontier provinces. The ambitious prince was now vulnerable to a charge of usurping imperial authority. His unauthorized promotion was a blow against the Tetrarchy which had stabilized the Roman world. The empire had almost collapsed during the 3rd century because of military rebellions and only a generation before, Aurelian had brought to an end fifteen years of secession by the western provinces. Subsequently, Constantine's own father had invaded Britain precisely to end a decade of separate imperium in the province under the rebel emperors Carausius and Allectus.
Constantine immediately left Britain and the legionary fortress where he had been acclaimed to establish a firmer base with the legions of the Rhineland. He moved quickly to establish a court in the northern city of Augusta Treverorum (Trier) – often a secessionist capital – but his sights were on a far bigger prize.
Like his father before him, Constantine abandoned a concubine (the mother of his child) to make a politically useful marriage into the family of the senior Augustus (and rival), Maximian, Diocletian's original colleague, who had returned to imperial politics from an unwelcome retirement. Soon after, Maximian was dead, almost certainly on the orders of his new son-in-law. In the eastern capital an unhappy Galerius reluctantly acknowledged Constantine as a caesar but appointed his own nominee Severus as supreme ruler for the west.
In the meantime, Maxentius (son of Maximian and now Constantine's brother-in-law!) had been proclaimed Augustus in Rome by the praetorian guard. Severus lost his life in an unsuccessful attempt to remove the usurper.
Conversion? My Enemy's Enemy is My Friend
In Constantine's day, the eastern provinces were by far the richest and most populous of the Roman world. Some of its cities Pergamon, Symrna, Antioch and so on had existed for almost a millennium and had accumulated vast wealth from international trade and venerated cult centres. Through its numerous cities passed Roman gold going east in exchange for imports from Persia, India and Arabia. Flowing west with those exotic imports came exotic 'mystery religions' to titillate and enthrall Roman appetites.
In contrast, the western provinces now ruled by Constantine were more recently colonized and less developed. Its cities were small 'new towns', its hinterland still barbarian. During the crisis decades of the 3rd century many provincial Romans in the west had been carried off into slavery by Germanic raiders and their cities burned. The province of Britain and part of northern Gaul had actually seceded from the empire in the late third century and had been ruled by its own 'emperors' (Carausius, Allectus) with the help of Frankish mercenaries (286-297).
Constantine had no power-base in the east from which to mount a bid for the throne but he had been at Nicomedia in 303 when Diocletian had decided to purge the Roman state of the disloyal Christian element. He had also served under Galerius on the Danube and witnessed at first-hand how the favoured Galerius designated heir and rival in particular despised the cult of Christ.
The ambitious and ruthless prince, from his base in Trier, immediately proclaimed himself 'protector of the Christians.' But it was not the handful of Jesus worshippers in the west that Constantine had in mind there had not, after all, been any persecution in the west but the far more numerous congregation in the east. They constituted a tiny minority within the total population (perhaps as few as 2%) but the eastern Christians were an organised force of fanatics, in many cities holding important positions in state administration. Some held posts even within the imperial entourage.
By championing the cause of the Christians Constantine put himself at the head of a 'fifth column' in the east, of a state within a state.
That Fabulous Fable
At first, Constantine honoured the tetrarchy which had stabilized the empire for a generation but Galerius himself died in 311 and Constantine saw his opportunity. In the spring of 312, in the first of his civil wars, Constantine moved against the ill-fated Maxentius to seize control of Italy and Africa, in the process almost annihilating a Roman army near Turin, and another outside of Rome.
A nonsense repeated ad nauseam is the fable of the writing above the sun which advised Constantine of his divine destiny. In its worst form, the legend has it that the words In this sign, you shall conquer and the sign of the cross were visible to Constantine and his entire army. The words would have been, perhaps, Latin In Hoc Signo Victor Seris, a bizarre cloud formation unique in the annuls of meteorological observation.
On the other hand, more than one author (e.g. S. Angus, The Mystery Religions, p236) says that the words were in Greek ('En Touto Nika'), which would have left them unintelligible to the bulk of the army. Then, again, perhaps they were in both Latin and Greek, a complete occluded front of cumulus cloud!
Digging below the legend however we discover that the vision was in fact a dream reported some years later by Constantine to his secretary Lactantius (On the Death of the Persecutors, chapter xliv; ANF. vii, 318.) The fable was later embellished by the emperor's minister of propaganda, Bishop Eusebius, in his Life of Constantine (1.xxvi-xxxi). The sign of the cross was an even later interpolation (the cross was not a Christian symbol at the time of the battle nor would be until the 6th century!). Any good luck emblem at this date would have been the chi-rho ambiguously the first two letters of the word Christos, the Greek word for auspicious and also Chronos, god of time and a popular embodiment of Mithras!
What is perhaps most significant about this origins fantasy is that lucky charms had entered the parlance of Christianity. Constantine did not need to be a Christian; invoking its symbols was sufficient to win divine patronage. But did he invoke its symbols? Coins issued at the time celebrating his victory showed only Sol Invictus: his triumphant arch, still standing, refers only to the gods. In truth, Constantine was not a particularly pious man. Famously, he delayed his baptism until he was close to death for fear of further sinning with good reason: among his many murders was that of his first wife Fausta (boiled alive) and eldest son Crispus (strangled).
End of Praetorians: New Germanic cavalry
In the real world, one consequence of Constantine's victories in 312 was the disbandment of the praetorian guard. The praetorians had had the misfortune to have backed Maxentius and those who had not fallen in the battle (and many had drowned near the Milvian bridge) were demoted and posted to garrisons on distant frontiers.
Replacing the praetorians was a special imperial guard Scholae Palatinae an elite cavalry regiment of 500, mainly Germans. Diocletian had pioneered a new force of imperial guards (Ioviani and Herculiani) but these had been crack infantry regiments.
Constantine's spite left the city of Rome defenseless and when the Visigoths arrived a century later the 'mistress of the world' fell to the invader.
Constantine's Ambition Decimates
Multiple Civil Wars
Having added Italy and Africa to his realm, Constantine at first made secure his position with the senior augustus in the east – where Licinius had succeeded to the throne of Galerius – by a 'peace pact' and the gift of his sister as a bride. But within a year, Constantine reneged on his agreement with Licinius and plunged the empire into a new civil war.
Two battles in the Balkans Cibalae (October, 314), Castra Jarba (November, 314) were stalemated with massive casualties on both sides. It seems Constantine unnerved the Christians in Licinius's army by displaying Christian emblems in his own legions.
Licinius an accommodating and benign emperor sued for a peace in which he acknowledged Constantine as the senior augustus.
Now titular monarch of the world, for a decade Constantine concentrated on wooing the senatorial class in Rome, marked by a program of public works in a city already in decline.
The Fate of Rome
In the embattled years of the late third century the fortunes of the city of Rome began a downspin, even as Christianitys star was rising.
By Constantines day there were about two dozen Christian meeting houses in the city but the imperial court and its bureaucracy had moved north, first to Milan and Trier, and later, to Ravenna and Arles.
Affected both by civil conflict and the recurring epidemics which came in its wake, the citys population began to fall. Worse yet, at the very moment of Christian triumph the consecration of the Lateran Basilica by the first Christian Emperor the great general was already well ahead with plans for a new capital, eight hundred miles to the east.
The Christians had plundered and assimilated much of pagan religious thought and ritual; their conquering hero now sequestered the statuary and fabric of the eastern empire to aggrandize his new city on the Bosphorus.
After 326, Constantine never again stepped foot in Rome; he personally never liked the city...' (J. Norwich, Byzantium, p61).
In consequence the Bishops of Rome picked up the mantle of falling grandeur and set the city on a new Christian path to power.
Having built support within the old imperial capital, and with his ambitions still not satisfied, Constantine provoked yet another civil war with Licinius in 324.
Constantine gathered an army of 125,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry, and a fleet of 200 vessels. To meet the threat, Licinius stripped troops from the vulnerable Persian frontier to assemble a force of 150,000 infantry, 15,000 cavalry and a fleet of no fewer than 350 ships. Battle was joined at Adrianople on 3 July and Byzantium was blockaded. The fleets met in the Bosphorus, but Licinius's navy was overwhelmed by a storm, drowning 5000 men in the process. Licinius surrendered on the promise of personal safety; six months later he was strangled by order of Constantine.
The pampered prince had at last reached the summit of his ambition. The tough and ruthless Constantine, bastard son of Constantius and a Bithynian barmaid called Helena, had made himself master of the Empire. Christianitys hour had come.
Yet in his climb to mastery of the Roman world, 'the first Christian Emperor' had brought about the destruction of the heart of the Roman military machine. The huge loss of manpower could be made good only by ever greater recruitment of barbarian detachments, hired as mercenaries to fight Rome's wars for her.
This, of course, is precisely what Constantine did.
Fatal Reorganisation of the Army
At the height of its power, Rome's vast empire had been successfully defended by legions stationed in great fortresses on the frontiers. Its military machine had thoroughly mastered the arts of military support and logistics. Some 33 legions had been sufficient to vanquish barbarians in forest, desert, mountain or marsh.
But the legions had increasingly become the makers of emperors. In the interlude of the tetrarchy, Constantine's father had been chosen by Diocletian for his ability. But Constantine himself had used the Gallic army to stake his own claim for power and he was wary of the legions. Having triumphed by force, Constantine was determined to close the door for any future usurpers.
At the heart of Constantine's new structure for the army was a mobile field force of 100,000 troops, initially withdrawn from the frontier garrisons. Protection of the imperial regime was more important than protection of 'remote frontiers'. A mobile force, near to the person of the emperor, replaced forces scattered along thousands of miles of frontier. Up close and personal, potential rivals in the military could be identified and eliminated.
The new army had a new command structure, based upon personal loyalty to the emperor. At its head were two 'field marshals' for infantry and cavalry (magister peditum, magister equitum), under Constantine's watchful eye. Senators were eliminated entirely from military command.
Yet Constantine's new army proved as disastrous as his new religion.
Under such conditions, traditional Roman infantry tactics, driven by harsh discipline and constant training, simply disappeared. The luckless frontier troops, dependent upon payment in rations and only the occasional cash bonus, degenerated into a peasant militia, spending more time in growing food than on the parade ground.
Yet the expensive mobile force was never mobile enough.
Constantine responded to the crisis – plainly evident in his own day – by a law requiring sons of veterans to serve in the army. Military service (like tax collecting) became hereditary. Not only did this precipitate a collapse of espirit de corps: Constantine laid one of the foundation stones of that insidious form of slavery called serfdom.
With the demise of the old structure of the army, the 'democratic' escalator, whereby a common soldier, moving through the ranks, could enter the imperial entourage and reach for the throne itself, passed away. The stage was now set for 'Lords' on horseback and shoddily equipped conscripts.
Divine, Dynastic Monarch!
Strengthening the Centre,
Dividing the Periphery
The wily Diocletian had begun a process (adapted from the Oriental theocracies) which the vainglorious Constantine refined and set as a model for all future monarchs: he surrounded the imperial dignity with a 'halo' of sacredness and ceremonial.
A large court-retinue, elaborate court-ceremonials, and ostentatious court-costume made access to the emperor almost impossible. When he eventually reached 'God's agent on Earth', a 'suppliant' prostrated himself before the emperor as if before a divinity (Augustus had always stood to greet a senator!)
Henceforth, emperors allowed themselves to be venerated as divines, and everything connected with them was called 'sacred'. Instead of imperial, the word 'sacred' had now always to be used.
The egotistical Constantine, not content with concentrating absolute (and 'divine') power into his own hands, went on to reduce the authority of provincial governors and generals ('duces', 'comes'). Some of this authority fell into the hands of the nouveau riche bishops, at whose head stood Constantine himself. Constantine hoped thus to prevent any rebellion arising in the provinces – but he did so at the cost of weakening the ability of provincials to resist invasion.
State Church: Christianity Goes Royal
In the century before the ignoble alliance of one particular faction with the imperium many christianities had contended. Before Constantine, Christ had, for most Christians, been the good shepherd, just like Mithras and Apollo, not a celestial monarch or an imperial judge. Nor did the Christian sects dwell on the crucifixion scene:
In a number of provinces a serious breach had opened within the Christian churches between those who had 'apostatised' during Diocletian's brief persecution and those who had suffered penalties for their fanaticism. Some churches already had a 'nationalistic' bent, serving as a focus for opposition to the emperor.
Constantine, vexed by all such discord, called for an inclusive 'universal' or catholic faith. Of course all factions regarded themselves as that universal 'orthodox' faith and manoeuvred for preferment. It was inevitable that an autocrat like Constantine would identify with and adopt a church which modelled its organisation not merely upon the Roman State but upon its most authoritarian aspect: the imperial army.
In the Constantinian Church, bishops would rule districts corresponding with military dioceses, would control appointments and impose discipline. Lesser clerics would report through a chain of command up to the local pontiff. Staff officers, in the guise of deacons and presbyters, would control funds and allocations.
Just as well that in Christian morality there was no place for democracy, only for absolute monarchs, chosen by God. In Christianity there were no human rights (for example, of a slave to his freedom), only obligations (thus a slave should be honest and faithful to his master, because, of course, all would be judged on the day of reckoning).
Spoils of Victory: Pillaging the Pagans
The alliance of Roman autocracy and Christian intolerance was a marriage made in hell. The Universal Church eyed with envy the pagan temples and shrines which, through centuries, had amassed their own riches. As propagandists for Constantine, the Christians had the ear of the emperor and successfully urged him to confiscate temple treasures throughout the Empire, much of it redirected to the One True Faith.
The assault upon the values that had sustained the Empire for a thousand years was merciless and relentless. It began with Constantine's denial of state funds to the ancient pagan shrines which had always depended on state sponsorship. Never having had full-time fund raisers like the Christian churches the pagan cults immediately went into decline.
But having given the Christians the world, what Constantine could not anticipate was the ferocity of Christian discord, which was to dog his reign and the reign of all who were to follow him.
The Christian 'community' itself had changed as a consequence of the Constantinian revolution. Official recognition of Christianity, the tax exemptions it gave devotees and state patronage made the Christian faith considerably more appealing to opportunistic pagans. Episcopal posts became highly sought after when, in 319, the clergy were exempted from public obligations and, in 321, priests were exempted from imperial and local taxation. Clerics were even placed outside the jurisdiction of normal courts ('Privilegia Ecclesiastica': Decline of Law).
A flood of new converts, many with little or no religious motivation, swamped the church. Fierce rivalries within the Church multiplied, weakened its power and exposed vulnerabilities in both its doctrine and organisation.
Constantine successfully established the dynastic principle, but it had bitter fruit. His feeble sons, 'born to rule', murdered each other (the survivor died falling from his horse). Worse yet, Constantines nephew, Julian, though raised as a Christian, detested the doctrine and, on assuming the throne, reversed many of Constantines policies.
Emperor Julian on his uncle Constantine
Post-Constantine: Lurch into Religious Tyranny
Within three years, Emperor Julian had been assassinated on the Persian front (probably by a disaffected Christian soldier) – but it left the Christians fearful of losing the prize that had fallen so unexpectedly into their laps.
Thereafter, the Christians embraced a ruthlessness hitherto unknown in the world, an intolerance which, in the centuries ahead, would wreak unimaginable horror.
In the closing years of the fourth century, draconian laws prohibiting non-Christian beliefs were enacted by the new hero of the Christians, Emperor Theodosius. Heresy was now equated with treason and thus became a capital offence.
Theodosius 'the Great' presided over the destruction of temples and icons, the burning of books and libraries, and a rampage of murder of pagan priests, scholars and philosophers. The wisdom and finesse of an entire civilization was sacrificed on the altar of the Christian godman and delivered Europe into a dark age of barbarism and crass superstition.
Only the very brave, the very foolish or the very hidden would now deny their Christianity. The prologue to the Dark Age had been written.