During late antiquity and early middle ages, the Christian faith emerged first as a sect of Judaism that distinguished itself from other Jewish communities, like the Essenes, the Sadducees and Pharisees, by recognition of Jesus as the arrival of the Messiah. The morality proposed by the Christians was not new, but an extension of the moral precepts, which had been practised by the philosophers and Jews; the monotheistic stance of the group was also an extension of the Jewish basis of Christianity. However, in contrast to Judaism, which was an ancient faith, the Christian religion was relatively new and therefore suspicious; it had not yet earned the reputation or the honour of an established faith. Some of the moral precepts promoted by the Christians included marital faithfulness, discouragement of remarriage, notions against the propriety of suicide, virginity from the time of birth, continence from the time of baptism, and continence within married couples. This essay argues that Constantine built the foundations for Christianity to spread in the late antiquity and early middle ages. Through the Edict of Milan in 313 CE and the introduction of political bishops, Constantine integrated Christianity into many main aspects of society, building the pillars in which future Emperors of the Roman Empire could expand upon. The consolidation of this integration through the building of churches in key cities not only signified the growing power and influence the Christian faith had within the Roman Empire, but also demonstrated how crucial conversion to Christianity was believed to be for the lasting success of the Roman Empire.
To understand the significance of Constantine’s endorsement of Christianity, it is important to understand the previous attitudes towards the Christian faith in the late antiquity. The Christian message of religious exclusivity and monotheism was resented throughout the empire. Denial of any other god beside their own was a major source of Roman opposition towards the Christian faith. Furthermore, due to their monotheistic beliefs, Christians refused to participate in public sacrifices to the empire was arguably at the heart of Christian persecution.
In order to understand why the Christian ideologies and concepts appealed to so many people in late antiquity and early middle ages, we first need to understand the message and ideologies that they were teaching. Christians had a very strong identity and were members of an extended, yet artificial kin group that they created when they went through baptism. Yet, this group was open to all classes; churches vowed to accept even those who were excluded from other aspects of Roman society. Therefore, among the early converts to Christianity were former slaves, existing slaves, members of the aristocracy, etc. And many members of early Christianity were also embers of the merchant class. Taking this into account, it is clear why the promise of better inheritance of this world and the next inspired so many people to convert to the Christian faith. Christianity promised a better inheritance of this world and the next for those who became Christians. In this world, they could expect charity, a sense of community life, common social bonds that tied them together. Also, the promise of salvation in the afterlife was especially appealing to those in the underclass, for those who had a relatively or entirely miserable existence in this life. Christianity also provided access to a philosophical world which was not restricted to an educated elite.
One of the most significant agreements in the advancement of Christianity was the Edict of Milan 313 CE. The Edict of Milan was the outcome of a political agreement between the Roman emperors Constantine and Licinus in February 313; it permanently established the freedom to practice Christianity within the Roman Empire. The edict was significant as it granted Christians legal rights, including the right to organise churches, and directed the prompt return to Christians of confiscated property. Although there had been previous edicts of toleration, the Edict of Milan was arguably the main turning point in the spread of Christianity across the Roman Empire in late antiquity and early middle ages. With the edict endorsing Christianity, people were allowed to openly practise the religion without the deterrent of persecution, meaning that people were, in theory, free to practise Christianity if they desired. Although some historians, such as Isabella Sandwell, argue that “some late-antique people might not have chosen to see religious interaction as an interaction between two mutually opposed and strongly bounded entities” and “Instead, they might have played up the similarities across religious boundaries, emphasised areas of compromise and allowed people to switch easily between religious allegiances.” This argument has its merits as evidence shows that in late antiquity, pagan religion itself was adapting and becoming less polytheistic. Therefore, the initial impact of the edict of Milan may not have been explosive as it first appears. However, its legacy is still one of great significance as it pathed the way for future reforms such as the First Council of Nicaea. The first council of Nicaea was a council of bishops assembled in the city of Nicaea by Constantine in the year 325 CE. This assemblage of this resulted in the first uniform Christian doctrine: the Nicene Creed. Constantine’s organisation of The Nicene Creed was another significant milestone in the progression of the Christian faith in early antiquity. We begin to see the formation of a more prestigious, powerful and respected religion, a stark contrast to the struggling persecuted Christian faith before 313 CE.
Not only did Constantine grant people the freedom to practise Christianity without persecution in the Edict of Milan, he also integrated Christian faith into the fundamental pillars of society through the introduction of political bishops. This new introduction to society is extremely significant as it indicates that not only were those of Christian faith now free to practise Christianity as they pleased, but they now had political influence within the empire, increasing the significance and power of the Christianity within the Roman empire.
After Constantin endorsed the Christian faith, through the Edict of Milan, we begin to see a surge in the number of cynics and other philosophers, such as John Chrysostom, speaking to the public. “The pinnacle of ancient education was the school of rhetoric, and the skill continued to be an important element of elite identity throughout the later Roman Empire,” therefore, Chrysostom and his many of his contemporaries were educated in rhetoric, meaning that they were extremely skilful in their powers of persuasion. With this in mind, it is easier to explain why public speaking was a powerful factor in the conversion of many people to Christianity in late antiquity and the early middle ages. These sermons, however, these sermons were not restricted to just the educated elite. Although “the rich, educated, or male members of the congregation were often the center of attention, a close look at Chrysostom’s homilies reveals that the preacher was aware that he was speaking to people with a variety of educational backgrounds,” including the lower, merchant classes and those who were excluded from other aspects of Roman society. Addressing people of a variety of educational and social status’ as one was, arguably, critical in the inducement of citizens across the Roman Empire. Within Christianity, all people had a purpose and were of importance. This gave converts who were perceived as outcasts of society, such as former slaves, a sense of inclusivity with the rest of the Roman population, something they would not have had the opportunity to experience before; nobody was excluded in the Christian faith due to their social ranking. However, without the Edict of Milan in 313, not only would public figures like Chrysostom and his contemporaries be persecuted, but also those who attended his sermons, meaning that a vast majority of citizens, who were attracted to the christian faith, were deterred from the practice. Not only did Constantine enable these sermons to take place, but he also integrated leaders of the Christian faith into key positions within the government and built churches for them to preach their message.
Constantine consolidated the endorsement of the Christian faith through the building of impressive churches on “established sites of Christian worship connected with the martyrs” (including St Peter’s and Lateran basilica). The decision to build the churches on the sites connected with the martyrs is one of significance; it suggested to the roman people that Christianity was now the dominant faith, breaking ties with old traditions. “Constantine ringed the city of Rome with new churches, built at established sites of Christian worship connected with the martyrs,” showing the people of the empire that Christendom was not something to fear or resent, but instead was a faith that people should embrace. Constantine arguably gave Christianity the platform and necessities in which it needed for a widespread empire conversion. Not only did Constantine allow these churches, but he also spent empire funds building them in major cities such as Antioch, Nicomedia, Milan and Aquilia. With some of them receiving imperial sponsorship, it signified that Constantine’s endorsement of Christianity was more than just personal feelings, but may, in fact, be of political benefits and crucial for the survival of the Empire. As seen with previous religious persuasions in the Roman Empire in late antiquity, it is evident that religious beliefs and the success of the empire were inextricably intertwined through public acts such as Sacrifice to the Genius of the Emperor.
However, it is important to note that although many people during late antiquity were converting to Christianity, “In the period from the death of Constantine in 337 to the accession of Valentinian III at Ravenna in 425, a considerable section of the population of the Roman empire, at all social levels, remained largely unaffected by the claims of the Christian church. They were impenitently polytheistic, in that the religious common sense of their age.” Some may argue that due to a large amount of the imperial population being unaffected by the religious reforms, Constantine’s efforts to convert the Roman Empire to the Christian faith was unsuccessful. However, it is crucial to look at what the reforms represented, and also to look at the foundations that Constantine built in order for Christianity to further progress and ultimately become the dominant religion within the Roman Empire. The building of these Christian churches was a clear expression of Constantine’s desires for the future of the empire. It can be argued that the building of these magnificent churches was a clear indication that the acceptance of the Christian faith was permanent and revealed Constantine’s intentions for Christianity to eventually become the primary religion within the empire.
Taking all evidence into account, there were many significant reasons for the spread of Christianity in late antiquity and early middle ages. However, Constantine laid down the first successful foundations which made future attempts to further spread Christianity, such as the Nicene Creed and Theodosian Code, as successful as they were, if at all possible. By endorsing the freedom to practice Christianity, it enabled educated cynics and philosophers, who were trained in the art of rhetoric, to freely preach Christian ideologies and values, without fear of being persecuted. This is arguably one of the main reasons that Christianity spread so successfully among the lower class citizens of the Roman Empire before christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 CE with the Edict of Thessalonica. Without Constantine’s reforms, Christianity would not have gained as strong a foothold and future steps towards Christianity may not have been as successful, therefore, Constantine’s reforms were the most important reason people converted to Christianity in late antiquity and early middle ages.