A new Rome: AD 330
Constantine, now in firm command of the entire Roman empire (the first man for a long while to be in that position), is planning another initiative as significant as his adoption of Christianity. Immediately after the defeat of Licinius he sets about rebuilding Byzantium as a Christian capital city – one in which pagan sacrifice, the central rite of imperial Rome until this time, is specifically forbidden.
The city is ready by AD 330 for a ceremony of inauguration. Byzantium acquires two new names – New Rome and Constantinople, the city of Constantine. The Roman empire, within eighteen years of Constantine’s first victory, has a new religion, a new centre of gravity and a significant change of culture.
Greece has always been the main cultural influence on Rome, and Greek is the language of the inhabitants of Byzantium. With the founding of Constantinople, the older culture effectively absorbs its vigorous younger challenger. Even the name Constantinopolis is Greek (polis meaning city).
Yet Constantinople is also the new Rome, capital of the Roman empire. The Greeks of this city will long continue to describe themselves as Romans. For several centuries Constantinople represents both the end of the Roman empire and the beginning of the Byzantine empire. Meanwhile Rome gradually establishes a new identity – as the seat of the Christian pope.
Byzantium offers the Roman emperor a clear strategic advantage as a centre of operation, for it is much closer than Rome to the threatened regions of the empire.
The main problems in the past century have been defending the Balkans from invaders beyond the Danube and protecting the Middle East from the Persians. Byzantium, renewed now as Constantinople, sits firmly between these troubled regions.
Constantine and his city: from AD 330
The emperor wastes no time in building monuments to proclaim Byzantium a Christian city. The focal point is a structure called the milion or milestone, from which all distances in the empire are now to be measured. It consists of four triumphal arches supporting a dome.
Nearby is the first church built here by Constantine. In this Greek city it is dedicated not to a martyr but to a concept, Holy Peace – the church of St Eirene. Probably before the end of Constantine’s life, work begins on its famous neighbour, complete by 360 and sacred this time to Holy Wisdom – St Sophia.
Falling ill in AD 337, Constantine is at last baptized – only a few days before his death. It has often been asked why he left this necessary act of Christian commitment so late. The answer is probably so as not to waste the magic of baptism, which washes away sins. An emperor can hardly live a blameless life, and there are many blots on Constantine’s record – such as his unexplained execution of his eldest son and his second wife in 326.
A late baptism guarantees a clean record on the day of judgement.
Three sons of Constantine: AD 337-361
On the death of Constantine, in AD 337, the empire is divided between his sons Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans. Since the time of his father, Constantius, the family has had a streak of constancy in its choice of names.
The sons inherit the parts of the empire which they have already ruled, on behalf of their father, as Caesars. Constantius II, though not the eldest, has the lion’s share – Greece, Constantinople and the entire eastern empire. His elder brother, Constantine II, has Spain, Gaul and Britain. The youngest, Constans, controls Italy and Spain.
Peace and wisdom, in honour of which churches are now rising in Constantinople, do not make the brothers any more loving than other imperial families. Large numbers of their male relations are butchered at the start of the reign, and Constantine II meets his death in Italy in 340 when marching against Constans. Ten years later Constans is murdered in Gaul by an army commander with an eye on the throne. From AD 350 Constantius II is the only legitimate emperor.
With difficulty he recovers control of the entire empire. But from the point of view of Christianity, on which he is as keen as his father, he makes one cardinal error. He gives command of the west to his cousin Julian.
Julian the Apostate: AD 337-361
Son of a half-brother of Constantine the Great, Julian escapes the massacre of male members of the family which follows Constantine’s death – probably because he is only six at the time. In his early 20s he studies in Athens, which still retains its status as the centre of Greek learning and pagan philosophy. Brought up strictly as a Christian, Julian now becomes a devotee of Greek culture. He is himself a talented writer in Greek, and several of his works survive.
Little of this would be remembered today, but for the unexpected accident of his becoming emperor. Subsequent events, in the two brief years of the ‘apostate’ on the throne, have mesmerized Christian historians.
In AD 356, when Julian is twenty-five, the emperor Constantius II appoints him Caesar in command of the Roman armies in Gaul. To everyone’s surprise the young intellectual proves a brilliant general, winning a succession of victories over powerful tribes along the Rhine border.
In 359, needing reinforcements against Persia, Constantius orders many of Julian’s best legions to march east. Instead, the troops stationed near Paris mutiny and proclaim Julian emperor. He moves slowly eastwards with them to what would have been a rebellious confrontation. But in 361 Constantius, moving westwards to meet him, dies in Asia Minor. Julian is emperor.
The revival of the pagan cult: AD 361-363
It is not known exactly when the new emperor, Julian, decides to reinstate the ancient gods of Rome and Greece . At first he behaves with religious tolerance – returning to their sees, for example, Catholic bishops who have been exiled by Constantius, a committed follower of Arius. But by 362 Julian is making a prominent display of the ritual sacrifices which he carries out personally at revived pagan temples.
When Christians protest, he removes their relics from ancient shrines, imposes special taxes on Christian priests and gives preference to pagans in the civil service.
Julian is repeating, in reverse, the actions of his uncle Constantine in favouring Christianity. He intends to put in place a network of pagan priests and officials throughout the empire of the kind established by the Christians. This view of tomorrow does not appeal to yesterday’s elite.
To what extent the young emperor might have achieved his aim is one of history’s interesting speculations. In Christian eyes God gives a swift and decisive answer when Julian is killed, in 363, in a skirmish against the Persians. A rumour, first heard a century later, offers wry satisfaction. It is said that in his dying words the apostate cedes victory to Christ: Vicisti, Galilaee (Thou hast conquered, Galilean).
The frontiers of empire: AD 364-378
The death of Julian in warfare with Persia leads indirectly to a rare spell of peace on that frontier. The army selects as emperor a member of the royal household, by the name of Jovian, who extracts the Roman legions from a dangerous situation by making major concessions. Large tracts of territory in Mesopotamia and Armenia, long disputed, are abandoned to Persia.
Jovian dies of natural causes less than a year after becoming emperor. His concessions are regarded as shameful in Constantinople, but it is another forty years before war with Persia resumes.
On the other permanently threatened frontiers of empire, the Danube and the Rhine, the situation is very different. The pressure of barbarian tribes, themselves suddenly under threat from the Huns, is at last about to break down the barriers and flood the western empire.
The catastrophe begins when the emperor Valens is defeated and killed by the Visigoths at Adrianople in 378. His successor, Theodosius – an emperor subsequently accorded the title ‘the Great’ – solves the problem in the short term by settling the Visigoths as federates within the empire, or allies. But the intrusion of Goths, Vandals and Huns will over the next century disturb and finally destroy the Roman empire in the west.
Christian emperor and Christian bishop: AD 379-390
Theodosius becomes the eastern emperor in AD 379 and rapidly settles the religious splits within the empire by declaring pagan worship and Christian heresies (such as Arianism) to be illegal. A law of 380 orders all citizens to subscribe to the Catholic doctrines agreed under the chairmanship of Constantine the Great at the Council of Nicaea in 325.
A close link between church and state, with the state giving the lead, becomes a characteristic of the eastern or Byzantine empire. But Theodosius discovers, in a famous clash, that western bishops have authoritarian ideas of their own.
The cleric who sets a high standard for the western church in its relationship to the secular powers is Ambrose, bishop of Milan. In AD 390, when Theodosius is in Milan, there is a riot in Greece by supporters of a popular charioteer. A city governor is killed, and Theodosius sends orders for a brutal reprisal.
The charioteer’s fans are invited into a circus for a special performance. Then the gates are locked. More than 5000 are slaughtered by troops in a massacre lasting three hours.
When news of the atrocity reaches Milan, Ambrose refuses to give communion to the emperor unless he does public penance for the crime. Theodosius at first stays away from church. But eventually he appears, bare-headed and wearing sackcloth in place of his sumptuous imperial robes. He repeats the performance on several occasions before Ambrose relents, finally giving his emperor the sacrament on Christmas Day.
In the threat of excommunication the western church discovers a powerful weapon for dealing with wayward rulers.