Europe, unified culturally and politically by the Roman Empire, came to have only one God throughout the fourth century. But still the Empire could not last long.
The growth of Rome was driven by several factors. The main one was the successive wars of expansion of the Empire, which brought many changes:
– Prisoners of war turned into slaves to work the expropriated lands, which were displacing the old family farms that had formed Roman society.
– Corruption of the members of the Senate that accumulated wealth and power.
– The increase of the power of the state administration.
But after the empire expanded as much as it could, it had to be defended. And then the factors of the expansion phase turned against him:
– The growing immigration of foreigners from northern and central Europe and the Middle East (the so-called “barbarians” by the Romans) and their growing involvement in the imperial army, replacing less and less hardened Romans.
– Changes in the art of war with the predominance of cavalry (from barbarian cultures) over the legions (the traditional Roman infantry that had built the Empire).
– Internal plunder wars based on the speed of cavalry.
– The permanent economic crisis: with a lot of money, but without production or increase in land, which only changed masters, almost always by force.
And what happened to the thought?
Greco-Roman culture changed very little. The long shadow of Plato reduced to Roman pragmatism continued. The Being of Parmenides, turned into the theory of Plato’s Ideas, was converted into the one God (“I am who I am“) by his successor Plotinus (205-270).
Aristotle and science had never aroused the interest of the Romans. Then, the most cultured sectors were inclined to the religious mysticism of Plotinus that they found in Christianity.
But with respect to the hand left-right duality (or pragnanz and determination; or possibilities and interpretation) that is the core of this essay, Plotinus thought and especially the irruption of Christian theology, devastated with any duality, dialectic or dialogue, replaced by a unique interpretation of God, the world and the human being. Let’s see how this could happen in the greatest civilization that humanity had known until then.
Division of empire
The political situation had led to successive and endless clashes; and to the division of state power. First in two zones and then in four. In 306 the Empire was divided into four emperors: Constantine, Magencio, Licinius and Maximino.
In 306 Constantine I was proclaimed by the troops loyal to his father as emperor of the westernmost part of the four parts of Empire.
In October 312 Constantine faced Maxentius in the battle of Puente Milvio. On the eve of the battle – according to Christian tradition – a cross appeared in the sky and that night Constantine dreamed of it and a sign that said: “With this sign you will win“. And indeed, he won.
This miracle makes sense. Because the idea of a unique God fit perfectly with that of a unique emperor. Likewise, a unique and hierarchical church also fit that of a single imperial administration.
In this way, thanks to the God of Christians, Constantine defeated Magencio by becoming the only emperor of the West. Two months later, in October 212 he legalized Christianity and reached a secret agreement with Licinius, emperor of the remaining part of the East.
In April 313 Licinius defeated Maximo in the manner of Constantine, that is, entering into battle in the name of the only God; thus he became emperor of the entire eastern empire.
Christianity was declared legal throughout the empire by the Edict of Milan signed by Constantine and Licinius. Pope Sylvester I went to reside in a palace ceded by the emperor and basilicas were built in Rome, Jerusalem and throughout the empire.
In addition to legalizing Christianity, Constantine began repression against other religions. The next emperor, Theodosius, declared Christianity as the official religion of the Empire and increased the repression of other beliefs.
The Christians turned their meekness of martyrs into the fanaticism of converts. In defense of modesty, they began destroying the genitals of Greek statues; and, already in work, they continued destroying the statues themselves, the temples, the academies and burning all the philosophy books they found. The burning of books was followed the burning of people at the stake, which would become customary until the 18th century.
In 380 the next emperor, Theodosius, declared Christianity official religion; and in 392 it was done with all the unified power of the Empire.
With the only God comes the construction of the heretic enemy
Between 315-392 the antipagan legislation enacted by the emperors Constantine and Theodosius was developed.
In a monotheistic religion there is only one true god. Whoever believed in the existence of another god became a pagan without rights and he and his children could be enslaved for life. Because the God of Christians was paternal and kind, but only for Christians; or, more precisely, for the “good” Christians.
As for slavery, it was a fundamental pillar of the Empire; and continued to be so for centuries after the Roman Empire disappeared. Because Christianity not only tolerated slavery but also ordered it through decrees of the papacy (1). With Christianity what changed was who the slaves would be. From Theodosius, Christians were freed from slavery… provided they did not fall into any heresy.
Dogma and heresy: but who is the interpreter?
The new unique God brought new enemies. It was no longer just the heathen: now the heretics also began to be it. A heretic is a Christian who believes in the one and only true God, but misinterprets some dogma of the Church.
And what is that about “dogma“? Because in Greece – and even in Rome – philosopher was the one who sought the truth: not who claimed to have found it; because that would make him a sophist: someone despicable who used ideas for economic gain. Is worthy of admiration the vision of the future that the Greeks had.
Luckily, in Christianity the people didn’t need to think. The Truth was accessible and was in the dogma: it was the truth revealed by God, which was found in the sacred scriptures, but should be interpreted; first by the fathers of the Church and, a few centuries later, by specialists: the theologians.
Interpreters or inquisitors
The reader remembers that the hominins became humanized and acquired human language because one part of their brain presented a framework of possibilities to the other part, which determined or interpreted them. But now in the Roman Empire and after a flourishing Greco-Latin philosophy, that was no longer necessary, because the interpretation before any doubt happened, from being a normal human function, to becoming an ecclesiastical and inquisitorial office.
Heretics were considered worse than pagans; because having the truth in their priests’ word, they insisted on drawing their own conclusions about God and the world. They committed the sin of thinking for themselves.
From the new legislation of Theodosius, all the inhabitants of the Empire were forced to denounce those suspects of paganism or heresy.
A new class of priests was formed –all men, just in case– experts in theology: knowledge of the truth about God.
Theologians formed the first line in the ideological combat against the enemy. A fight that would last 16 centuries: almost until now.
His task was to build the pagan enemy, but above all, the heretic enemy.
Saint Augustine (354-430)
Agustín de Hipona (saint for Christians) was a double convert sinner, because he had given himself in his youth to sensuality and, if that were not enough, to the heresy of Manichaeism. But at the age of 31 he converted from his sins and dedicated the rest of his life to theology, becoming a father and doctor of the Church and the greatest Christian thinker of the first millennium. That might well be, because there weren’t many thinkers.
He began writing his second book The City of God, in 412, shocked by the sacking of Rome, two years earlier, by the barbarians of Alaric I. He finished the book with 72 years in 426. The title refers to Christianity as a city threatened by the pagan city, where decay and sin reign. The paradox is that the barbarians who sacked Rome were not precisely pagans, but practicing Christians of the Arian heresy.
Theologians took full control of philosophical thought, which was reduced to Christian dogma and morals. They were the advance of medieval obscurantism.
50 years after the end of “The City of God“, the year 476 the Empire collapsed. The German Odoacro deposed Romulus, the last emperor. This animation (2) shows the evolution of the extension of Rome from 300 a. C. until 530. A sigh in human history.
In the year 1000 the western European territory was divided into many barbarian kingdoms. The kings had lost authority over their vassals and a universal anarchy reigned. Roman civilization was reduced to pieces, for which knights with armor fought. Although their culture was barbaric, they and the slaves believed in a single Christian God.
Only the Catholic Church maintained through its monasteries something similar to the lost unity of the Roman Empire. Theologians continued to reason with Greek logic the truths revealed by God.
Next chapter Averroes and Thomas Aquinas
The Greek civilization was not completely lost, thanks to the fact that the Arabs prevented some books from being burned by Christian fanatics. But soon there were Islamist fanatics willing to burn the few that remained.
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Current chapter NOTES
(1) In 1452 and 1455, in full Renaissance, Pope Nicholas V granted the King of Portugal the right to reduce hereditary slavery to any “Saracen, pagan and any other unbeliever.”
(2) Animation reference: Fall of the Roman Empire of the West (Wikipedia).