The average intelligent Roman who lived under the Empire had taken very little interest in the gods of his fathers. A few times a year he went to the temple, but merely as a matter of custom. He looked on patiently when the people celebrated a religious festival with a solemn procession. But he regarded the worship of Jupiter and Minerva and Neptune as something rather childish, a survival from the crude days of the early republic and not a fit subject of study for a man who had mastered the works of the Stoics and the Epicureans and the other great philosophers of Athens.
This attitude made the Roman a very tolerant man. The government insisted that all people, Romans, foreigners, Greeks, Babylonians, Jews, should pay a certain outward respect to the image of the Emperor which was supposed to stand in every temple, just as a picture of the President of the United States is apt to hang in an American Post Office. But this was a formality without any deeper meaning. Generally speaking everybody could honour, revere and adore whatever gods he pleased, and as a result, Rome was filled with all sorts of queer little temples and synagogues, dedicated to the worship of Egyptian and African and Asiatic divinities.
When the first disciples of Jesus reached Rome and began to preach their new doctrine of a universal brotherhood of man, nobody objected. The man in the street stopped and listened. Rome, the capital of the world, had always been full of wandering preachers, each proclaiming his own "mystery." Most of the self-appointed priests appealed to the senses—promised golden rewards and endless pleasure to the followers of their own particular god. Soon the crowd in the street noticed that the so-called Christians (the followers of the Christ or "anointed") spoke a very different language. They did not appear to be impressed by great riches or a noble position. They extolled the beauties of poverty and humility and meekness. These were not exactly the virtues which had made Rome the mistress of the world. It was rather interesting to listen to a "mystery" which told people in the hey-day of their glory that their worldly success could not possibly bring them lasting happiness.
Besides, the preachers of the Christian mystery told dreadful stories of the fate that awaited those who refused to listen to the words of the true God. It was never wise to take chances. Of course the old Roman gods still existed, but were they strong enough to protect their friends against the powers of this new deity who had been brought to Europe from distant Asia? People began to have doubts. They returned to listen to further explanations of the new creed. After a while they began to meet the men and women who preached the words of Jesus. They found them very different from the average Roman priests. They were all dreadfully poor. They were kind to slaves and to animals. They did not try to gain riches, but gave away whatever they had. The example of their unselfish lives forced many Romans to forsake the old religion. They joined the small communities of Christians who met in the back rooms of private houses or somewhere in an open field, and the temples were deserted.
This went on year after year and the number of Christians continued to increase. Presbyters or priests (the original Greek meant "elder") were elected to guard the interests of the small churches. A bishop was made the head of all the communities within a single province. Peter, who had followed Paul to Rome, was the first Bishop of Rome. In due time his successors (who were addressed as Father or Papa) came to be known as Popes.
The church became a powerful institution within the Empire. The Christian doctrines appealed to those who despaired of this world. They also attracted many strong men who found it impossible to make a career under the Imperial gov- ernment, but who could exercise their gifts of leadership among the humble followers of the Nazarene teacher. At last the state was obliged to take notice. The Roman Empire (I have said this before) was tolerant through indifference. It allowed everybody to seek salvation after his or her own fashion. But it insisted that the different sects keep the peace among themselves and obey the wise rule of "live and let live."
The Christian communities however, refused to practice any sort of tolerance. They publicly declared that their God, and their God alone, was the true ruler of Heaven and Earth, and that all other gods were imposters. This seemed unfair to the other sects and the police discouraged such utterances. The Christians persisted.
Soon there were further difficulties. The Christians refused to go through the formalities of paying homage to the emperor. They refused to appear when they were called upon to join the army. The Roman magistrates threatened to punish them. The Christians answered that this miserable world was only the ante-room to a very pleasant Heaven and that they were more than willing to suffer death for their principles. The Romans, puzzled by such conduct, sometimes killed the offenders, but more often they did not. There was a certain amount of lynching during the earliest years of the church, but this was the work of that part of the mob which accused their meek Christian neighbours of every conceivable crime, (such as slaughtering and eating babies, bringing about sickness and pestilence, betraying the country in times of danger) because it was a harmless sport and devoid of danger, as the Christians refused to fight back.
The Goths are Coming
Meanwhile, Rome continued to be invaded by the Barbarians and when her armies failed, Christian missionaries went forth to preach their gospel of peace to the wild Teutons. They were strong men without fear of death. They spoke a language which left no doubt as to the future of unrepentant sinners. The Teutons were deeply impressed. They still had a deep respect for the wisdom of the ancient city of Rome. Those men were Romans. They probably spoke the truth. Soon the Christian missionary became a power in the savage regions of the Teutons and the Franks. Half a dozen missionaries were as valuable as a whole regiment of soldiers. The Emperors began to understand that the Christian might be of great use to them. In some of the provinces they were given equal rights with those who remained faithful to the old gods. The great change however came during the last half of the fourth century.
Constantine, sometimes (Heaven knows why) called Constantine the Great, was emperor. He was a terrible ruffian, but people of tender qualities could hardly hope to survive in that hard-fighting age. During a long and checkered career, Constantine had experienced many ups and downs. Once, when almost defeated by his enemies, he thought that he would try the power of this new Asiatic deity of whom everybody was talking. He promised that he too would become a Christian if he were successful in the coming battle. He won the victory and thereafter he was convinced of the power of the Christian God and allowed himself to be baptised.
From that moment on, the Christian church was officially recognised and this greatly strengthened the position of the new faith.
But the Christians still formed a very small minority of all the people, (not more than five or six percent,) and in order to win, they were forced to refuse all compromise. The old gods must be destroyed. For a short spell the emperor Julian, a lover of Greek wisdom, managed to save the pagan Gods from further destruction. But Julian died of his wounds during a campaign in Persia and his successor Jovian re-established the church in all its glory. One after the other the doors of the ancient temples were then closed. Then came the emperor Justinian (who built the church of Saint Sophia in Constantinople), who discontinued the school of philosophy at Athens which had been founded by Plato.
That was the end of the old Greek world, in which man had been allowed to think his own thoughts and dream his own dreams according to his desires. The somewhat vague rules of conduct of the philosophers had proved a poor compass by which to steer the ship of life after a deluge of savagery and ignorance had swept away the established order of things. There was need of something more positive and more definite. This the Church provided.
During an age when nothing was certain, the church stood like a rock and never receded from those principles which it held to be true and sacred. This steadfast courage gained the admiration of the multitudes and carried the church of Rome safely through the difficulties which destroyed the Roman state.
There was however, a certain element of luck in the final success of the Christian faith. After the disappearance of Theodoric's Roman-Gothic kingdom, in the fifth century, Italy was comparatively free from foreign invasion. The Lombards and Saxons and Slavs who succeeded the Goths were weak and backward tribes. Under those circumstances it was possible for the bishops of Rome to maintain the independence of their city. Soon the remnants of the empire, scattered throughout the peninsula, recognised the Dukes of Rome (or bishops) as their political and spiritual rulers.
The stage was set for the appearance of a strong man. He came in the year 590 and his name was Gregory. He belonged to the ruling classes of ancient Rome, and he had been "prefect" or mayor of the city. Then he had become a monk and a bishop and finally, and much against his will, (for he wanted to be a missionary and preach Christianity to the heathen of England,) he had been dragged to the Church of Saint Peter to be made Pope. He ruled only fourteen years but when he died the Christian world of western Europe had officially recognised the bishops of Rome, the Popes, as the head of the entire church.
This power, however, did not extend to the east. In Constantinople the Emperors continued the old custom which had recognised the successors of Augustus and Tiberius both as head of the government and as High Priest of the Established Religion. In the year 1453 the eastern Roman Empire was conquered by the Turks. Constantinople was taken, and Constantine Paleologue, the last Roman Emperor, was killed on the steps of the Church of the Holy Sophia.
A few years before, Zoe, the daughter of his brother Thomas, had married Ivan III of Russia. In this way did the grand-dukes of Moscow fall heir to the traditions of Constantinople. The double-eagle of old Byzantium (reminiscent of the days when Rome had been divided into an eastern and a western part) became the coat of arms of modern Russia. The Tsar who had been merely the first of the Russian nobles, assumed the aloofness and the dignity of a Roman emperor before whom all subjects, both high and low, were inconsiderable slaves.
The court was refashioned after the oriental pattern which the eastern Emperors had imported from Asia and from Egypt and which (so they flattered themselves) resembled the court of Alexander the Great. This strange inheritance which the dying Byzantine Empire bequeathed to an unsuspecting world continued to live with great vigour for six more centuries, amidst the vast plains of Russia. The last man to wear the crown with the double eagle of Constantinople, Tsar Nicholas, was murdered only the other day, so to speak. His body was thrown into a well. His son and his daughters were all killed. All his ancient rights and prerogatives were abolished, and the church was reduced to the position which it had held in Rome before the days of Constantine.
The western church however fared very differently, as we shall see in the next chapter when the whole Christian world is going to be threatened with destruction by the rival creed of an Arab camel-driver.