Orthodoxy and Heresy (Introduction to Western Civilization 5.11)

One of the problems Constantine encountered when he decided to become a Christian and make Christianity the favored religion in the Roman Empire was the divisions in the Christian Church. There had been various heresies before the fourth century, but one was just beginning to take hold throughout Christianity when Constantine converted in 312. This heresy was called Arianism.

Arianism began with a deacon named Arius who lived in Alexandria, Egypt. Plato’s ideas were very popular in the Roman Empire at that time and Arius was trying to find a way to make Christianity fit in with them. One of Plato’s popular ideas was that God was so different from material things that he could not communicate directly with them. Arius concluded that it was impossible, then, for the idea of the Incarnation to be true. If God and material things are so entirely different that they cannot even talk to each other there is no way that God could have become a human being because humans are made of matter.

Arius believed that Jesus was not both God and a human being, like most Christians believed, but was instead something else entirely. He was neither God nor a human being, Arius concluded. Instead, he is something in between the two, not quite God and not quite man.

Arius’s ideas were immediately rejected by the bishop of Alexandria and most other Christians, but some decided to accept Arius’s ideas. These people who thought that Arius was right were called Arians. The people who rejected Arius’s ideas and kept to the older Christian beliefs about Jesus called themselves orthodox, which is a Greek word that means “right-believing.” The bitter fight between the Arians and the orthodox lasted for decades.

Constantine decided to intervene and try to mediate the conflict. He sent out letters to every bishop in the Roman Empire as well as bishops of Christian communities outside of the Roman Empire. He invited them to gather at a city called Nicaea, near Constantinople, in the year 325. In total, over 300 bishops as well as hundreds of priests, deacons, and other leaders in the Church gathered at Nicaea to discuss Arius’s ideas. This gathering of Church all the leaders of the Church from everywhere in the world is called the Council of Nicaea. It also sometimes called the First Ecumenical Council, which means it was the first council of all of the leaders of the Christian Church.

The bishops at the Council of Nicaea allowed both Arius and those who were against him to speak. Each side tried to defend its ideas using the books of the Bible and books written by widely respected earlier Christian leaders. In the end, the bishops voted unanimously against Arius and in favor of the orthodox belief in the Incarnation. Arianism lived on for about another hundred years but lost its popularity over time and eventually disappeared.

The bishops of the Council of Nicaea used a word that had been used by Christians for about 200 years to describe God. They said that God is a Trinity, which means that although there is only one God he is three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In explaining the idea of the Trinity, some early Christians used the human body as an analogy. They said the Father would be the mind who directs everything, the Son the right hand, and the Holy Spirit the left hand. Another early Christian used the example of a candle flame to show how the three are related to each other. If you take one candle and use it to light two other candles, you have three flames but they are still all fire.

In addition to defining Christian beliefs, the bishops at the Council of Nicaea took care of a few other issues that were causing fights between Christians. For example, they set the date for Easter, the holiday that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus. Most Christians today still celebrate Easter using the date set by the bishops at Nicaea.


Review Questions

  1. What was Arius’s idea about who Jesus was?
  1. What was the orthodox idea about who Jesus was?
  1. What is the name of the council called by Constantine to decide between the Arians and the orthodox?
  1. What year was this council held?
  1. Who came?


Vocabulary Words

Orthodox – the correct or most popular belief or opinion

Constantine the Great (Introduction to Western Civilization 5.10)

As Christianity continued to grow, the Roman government continued to persecute Christians. The last and worst of the persecutions of Christians in the Roman Empire came in the third century. The Roman Empire suffered a series of military defeats by barbarians. There were also internal conflicts between powerful people who wanted to become emperor. In addition, a terrible plague had swept through parts of the empire and killed many people. Many Romans blamed the Christians for the wars, civil wars, diseases, and money problems of the empire. They believed that because the Christians refused to worship the Roman gods the gods had become angry with the empire and were punishing them.

As a result, the Roman emperors Decius and Diocletian each tried to wipe out Christianity entirely. In 250, Decius issued a law that said every Roman citizen must appear before a local government official and offer a sacrifice to the gods. Once a person did this, they would be given a certificate to carry with them. If they were stopped by the police and did not have this certificate they could be arrested and even put to death. After Decius’s death, Diocletian continued the persecution of Christians by ordering every Christian church in the empire destroyed and by burning copies of the Christians’ holy books.

There were other men in powerful positions, however, who were more kind to the Christians. One of these was Constantine, who was one of a group of men who were fighting each other to become emperor. While the others persecuted Christians, Constantine was more tolerant of them. In fact, his own mother, Helena, was a Christian. Although Constantine treated the Christians kindly, he did not decide to become one until a remarkable event the night before an important battle.

Constantine had been battling against a man named Maxentius for control of the Italian peninsula. Finally, the two men marched their armies out for one great final battle near the Tiber River, at a placed called the Milvian Bridge. The night before the battle, Constantine later told others, he looked into the sky and saw the shape of a cross. He then heard a voice say to him from the sky, “In hoc signo vinces,” which in Latin means, “By this sign, you will conquer.” Constantine immediately ordered his soldiers to paint the symbol of Christianity on their shields and on the banners they carried into battle. The next day, October 28, 312 AD, Constantine marched into battle against Maxentius and was victorious. Maxientius himself fell from the bridge during the battle and drowned in the Tiber River.

The next day, Constantine entered Rome and was greeted by cheering crowds. It was tradition for a conquering emperor to parade through the city to the temple of Jupiter. There, the conquering emperor was expected to dismount from his chariot and go into the temple to offer sacrifices to thank the king of the Roman gods for victory. Constantine shocked the people of Rome, however, by riding past the temple of Jupiter without even so much as looking toward it. Constantine was now emperor of the Roman Empire and had decided to become a Christian. He would be the first Christian Roman emperor.

The following year, in 313 AD, Constantine issued a new law called the Edict of Milan. This new law not only ended the persecution of Christians everywhere in the Roman Empire, it ordered that any churches that had been burned had to be rebuilt using the money of the Roman government and any property taken from the Christians had to be given back to them.

While Constantine did not outlaw the worship of the Roman gods, he did pass laws that showed favoritism to Christians. Now that Constantine was in charge, a person had to be a Christian to be promoted to the highest positions in government. Many who had formerly hated Christianity decided to become Christians.

Constantine also passed laws that made the empire more Christian in other ways. He outlawed practices that Christians did not like, such as using crucifixion to execute Christians. He also passed laws that made life easier for poor people, slaves, and women. In 324, Constantine even moved the capital of the Roman Empire away from the city of Rome to a new city named after himself, Constantinople. While Rome was a city filled with temples to the Roman gods, Constantinople was a city filled with Christian churches. Constantine was trying to remake the Roman Empire as a Christian empire.

After Constantine’s death in 336, there would only be one more emperor who was not a Christian. Julian, who was Constantine’s nephew, reigned as emperor for only two years. He was raised as a Christian but returned to worshipping the old Roman gods. Julian tried to bring back to old Roman religious beliefs, but it did not work. By the end of the fourth century, almost everyone in the Roman Empire had become a Christian. At the beginning of the fourth century, only about 1 in every 10 people in the Roman Empire was a Christian. At the beginning of the fifth century just 100 years later, only about 1 in every 10 people was not a Christian.


Review Questions

  1. Who was the first Christian Roman emperor?
  1. What did Constantine say he saw and heard the night before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge?
  1. What was the name of the law Constantine passed which ended the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire?

Personhood in Roman Law (Personhood Part V)

The interpretation of early Christian beliefs about personhood into the law of the Roman Empire began very early in the reign of Constantine. On 21 March 315, for instance, only two years after he issued the Edict of Milan, which document granted official religious toleration to Christianity following the worst persecution the Church had yet endured, Constantine promulgated a law which ordered that “if any person should be condemned to the arena or to the mines … he shall not be branded on his face … so that the face, which has been made in the likeness of celestial beauty, may not be disfigured.”62 Although the interpretation of the doctrine of Imago Dei which this law offers is rather haphazard and peculiar, it is nonetheless significant that Christian anthropology, even if in an incomplete form, was being used as a source for Roman law at this early date. Just two months later, on 13 May 315, Constantine promulgated another law with made infanticide and exposure of infants illegal in the Roman Empire and appointed money from the imperial treasury be used to feed children whose parents could not feed them.63 Similarly, four years later, on 11 May 319, Constantine issued another law which forbade masters from mistreating or killing their slaves.64 Constantine also published a number of laws whose intent was to encourage slave owners to manumit their slaves and to make the process of manumission, formerly a complicated process under Roman law, as easy and desirable as possible for them. A law promulgated on 18 April 321, for instance, grants Christian clergy the right to legally free slaves whose owners wish to manumit them.65 Another law, promulgated in an attempt to prevent poor parents from selling their children into slavery and published on 6 July 322, stipulated that children whose parents are too poor to support them should receive their support from the imperial treasury.66 As significant as are these and other laws promulgated by Constantine, the most significant reform of Roman law in accordance with Christian beliefs came under the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. Under the influence of his powerful wife Theodora, Justinian included in his extensive and thorough reforms of Roman law the promulgation of many laws protecting the rights of women and children. Among them were laws prohibiting forced prostitution, allowing marriages between members of any social class, banning infanticide, granting women guardianship over their children, and allowing women to more easily leave prostitution without being subject to continuing legal or social handicaps. In justifying the promulgation of such laws, Justinian echoed the words of Paul, proclaiming, “in the service of God, there is no male nor female, nor freeman nor slave.”67 The influence of the Corpus Juris Civilis, the massive product of Justinian’s comprehensive reform of Roman law, continues to the modern day. Later, in 797-802, a woman, Irene of Athens, would reign for the first time as empress regnant of the Roman Empire.68 She also convoked the Seventh Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church at Nicaea in 787.


62 Codex Theodosiani 9.40.2, in Joseph Story, ed., Conflict of Laws (Clark: Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., 1841).

63 Codex Theodosiani 11.27.1

64 Codex Theodosiani 9.12.1

65 Codex Theodosiani 4.8.1

66 Codex Theodosiani 11.27.2

67 Justinian, quoted in J. A .S. Evans, The Empress Theodora: Partner of Justinian (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003), 37.

68 Lynda Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204 (London: Routledge, 1999), 73-94.