The Roman Empire under Diocletian
Europe in 300 AD was firmly under the control of the Roman Empire, and Christians, in general, were hunted and persecuted throughout the Empire. From Nero to Diocletian the persecution was relentless and unforgiving, encompassing every conceivable form of torture from the stake to the Colosseum and Circus Maximus as fodder for the hungry beasts and the entertainment of the Roman mob. Writing about the impact of Christian martyrdom in the Roman Empire in 197 AD Tertullian wrote: “the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians” and so it was, for every martyr burned at the stake a score of new converts sprang up in his place almost overnight.
Diocletian’s rule claimed the lives of more Christians than any of the other emperors before him. Under him, the legal rights of Christians were rescinded and they were forced to submit themselves to Paganism on pain of death leading many of them to choose death before dishonoring their redeemer. Diocletian was also a controversial figure in the history of the Imperial Rome, best known for dividing the Roman Empire into two halves to stem the rising tide of chaos in the wake of the relentless spread of Roman power across the known world. The Western Empire was ruled from Rome while the Eastern Empire, later known as the Byzantine Empire, was ruled from Istanbul in Turkey.
Diocletian ruled the empire under a tetrarchy or a rule of four, with himself as Emperor, Maximian as Augustus or Co-Emperor and Galerius and Constantius as Caesar or Junior Co-Emperors. Constantius’ son Constantine was a prime candidate to take over his father’s position as Caesar and so was kept by Diocletian at his court where he was educated and trained. Constantine served Diocletian as a military tribune and later joined his father to campaign in the west, settling for a time in Britannia (Britain).
Constantine’s Rise to Power and Conversion
It was while he was in Britain, at York, that Constantius passed away and Constantine assumed his throne in 306 A.D. Ambitious for absolute power over the Empire, Constantine over time began to wrest power from the other tetrarchs. The two most formidable opponents that stood between him and his goal were Maxentius, the son of Maximian and Licinius and it was during one of his campaigns against Licinius that Constantine had a dream. In his dream, he was shown the symbol of a cross and was told: “in this sign conquer”. This marked the conversion of Constantine to Christianity and the divergence of a movement that had, up to this point, been unified.
Though there is some dispute among historians as to the exact date of Constantine’s conversion the single fact that everyone can agree on is that he did indeed become a Christian and paved the way for Christianity to be embraced across the Empire. This was no mean feat since the persecution of Christians under Diocletian and Galerius were severe and served to turn the Empire against the religion in general. He began by publishing two edicts in 321 AD which served to allay the fear that may have been surfacing in the minds of his pagan subjects. The first edict solemnized Sunday as the universal day of worship, bringing Christians and Pagans onto common ground. Up to this point, the church had kept the Bible Sabbath holy and Pagan’s had venerated Sunday as the day of the sun, which they worshiped. By enforcing Sunday worship Constantine created a bridge between the two religions that had not existed before. He also issued an edict encouraging the regular consultation of Aruspices or pagan priests who practiced divination by reading the entrails of animals.
Constantine was a shrewd politician and during his lifetime he managed to strike a delicate balance between the rituals of paganism and the rites of Christianity. He maintained his affiliation with the pagan temples while artfully intertwining paganism with Christianity and offering the Christians his protection and the promise of peace in exchange for compromise on their part. Over his lifetime he guided the mingling of paganism and Christianity to form what came to be known as the Universal Roman Church or the Roman Catholic church.
During Constantine’s reign from 306-337 AD economic decline and military pressures on the borders of the Empire necessitated a move of the Imperial capital from Rome to Constantinople in Turkey. This move left the Bishop of Rome virtually on his own in Italy, greatly increasing his influence and importance.
The Reign of Theodosius and The Gothic Conquests
Before the reign of Theodosius in 376 AD the empire opened its borders to Gothic tribes who were seeking asylum from the Huns. They crossed the Danube into Roman territory like the waves of the ocean or perhaps like a wave of hungry locusts who would eventually devour a significant portion of the Empire. When Theodosius took the throne in 379 AD he kept a wary eye on his Gothic guests who had already mounted a revolt in 378 and he took measures to contain them as best he could. At the end of the Gothic war in 382 AD, the Gothic tribes settled in Illyricum
From 379-395 AD under the guidance of Theodosius Paganism was completely destroyed and was replaced by Catholicism as the universal religion. During this time period, Theodosius also introduced the worship of saints and relics among Christians which was, in reality, a Christianised version of paganism that made the transition to ‘Christianity” easier for the pagans whose religion was slowly dying.
After Theodosius’ death in January of 395 AD, the Goths mounted an open revolt before the end of the winter, marching back across the Danube with the single purpose of conquering those who had granted them asylum but had kept them subjugated under the stipulations of one treaty after another. At the head of the Gothic armies was the artful genius of Alaric who led his armies in a conquest of Greece in 396 AD. Having conquered Greece in a relentless and decisive campaign Alaric set his sights on Italy in 400 AD and by 408 AD had besieged Rome in the first of three sieges that the Goths would raise against it, finally sacking the city in 410 AD. Under the relentless march of the Goths from the Danube to the shore of the Atlantic across the European continent, the Western Roman Empire began to crumble.
The Destruction of The Three Tribes
By 476 AD the Western Roman empire was in shreds, having disintegrated at the hands of the invading hordes that picked it apart one swath at a time until it was roughly divided into about ten major parts. Most of these tribes had been converted to Christianity through the efforts of the missionary Ulfilas. Ulfilas, while preaching the gospel to the Goths also preached to them a form of Christianity known as Arianism. Arianism didn’t accept that Jesus was Co-Eternal with the Father, teaching instead that he was begotten of God at some unknown point in eternity. This belief made them divergents of Catholicism and therefore they were looked upon as opponents. When the Arian Ostrogoths under Theodoric took over Rome in 493 AD they significantly limited the power of the Pope. But the Catholic Emperors of the Eastern Empire managed to help the Pope by eliminating three of the Arian tribes. The Emperor Zeno arranged a treaty with the Ostrogoths in 487 AD which led to the eradication of the Heruli in 493 AD. Later Justinian destroyed the Vandals in 534 AD and crippled the power of the Ostrogoths in 538 AD thereby eliminating all the powers that had limited the power and influence of the Pope.
The Impact of Clovis on Christendom
Clovis, King of the Franks was pivotal in converting the remaining tribes to Catholicism. He was pagan to begin with but married the Catholic Clotilda whose influence and other factors helped his conversion in 496 AD. Clovis went on to conquer almost all the other Germanic tribes and as he did so he carried Catholicism with him, thus leaving a string of converts in his wake. And so in signature style, the Roman church by force of arms either proselytize or disposed of her opponents and spread her influence over the face of the continent. When the Ostrogoths fell at the hands of Justinian in 538 AD all remaining opposition to Roman Catholic supremacy had vanished and the church rose triumphant, sitting enthroned upon the ashes of Imperial Rome.
It was an interesting turn of events; whereas Imperial Rome had disintegrated and fallen apart there arose from its ashes another, more powerful unifying factor than imperialism, that of Roman Catholicism. For though the nations of Western Rome were diverse they were all drawn together with a single unifying thread, their religious allegiance to the Pope at Rome. By 1000 AD the Roman Catholic church was the only church in Christendom and the single most powerful religious influence in the then known world, acting as a stabilizing bulwark in European life through the prosperous years of the high middle ages.