Report from the (Now Quiet) Fronts #55: A Legacy of Colonialism

The political impact of the Great War on Africa and South Asia was minimal; it essentially consisted of German colonies being appropriated by other European powers. The devastation in Europe did nothing to undermine the appetite for other peoples’ land. In sub-Saharan Africa, however, there was a tremendous loss of life. The military casualties were trivial, in total amounting to less than those suffered in a single day of any major offensive on the Western Front, but native civilian deaths were overwhelming.

Africa 1914
Africa 1920

Relatively few Blacks served in a military capacity, primarily with the Germans, but all the belligerents required bearers, tens of thousands of them. By 1917 a million porters had been conscripted, mostly in East Africa, and perhaps 100,000 had died, typically of disease. The mass conscription meant a shortage of farm labor and thus a shortage of food, aggravated by the confiscation of food and cattle by the military forces. This and poor rains in 1917 resulted in a famine that killed another 300,000 civilians, and then in September 1918 the Spanish flu arrived and accounted for 1,500,000 to 2,000,000 deaths.

The only non-European area (apart from Asiatic Russia) to undergo serious and lasting change because of the Great War was the Middle East. The dissolution of the Ottoman Empire created a new pattern of states, few of them actually independent, but ironically Turkey itself benefited, becoming a compact Anatolian state with no need to administer and guard the relatively unproductive territories to the south. Initially, however, even Anatolia was to be partitioned. The Greeks, promised land in Anatolia and Thrace, decided to push their claim immediately and sent 20,000 troops to Smyrna (Izmir) in May 1919; violence resulted and the Greco-Turkish War (or Turkish War of Independence) was underway.


Greek troops enter Izmir

The Turkish National Movement, led by Mustafa Kemal (later known as Atatürk) of Gallipoli fame, was adamantly opposed to any partition of Anatolia and was already mobilizing forces, guessing the Allies and their meagre garrisons would not resist. Armed by the Bolsheviks, who wanted part of Armenia (at the moment an independent state), Kemal first dealt with the Armenians in the east and the French in the southeast. The Greeks, meanwhile, had occupied most of Western Anatolia during the summer of 1920, and in August of that year the Allies ratified their promises of partition with the Treaty of Sèvres.


Mustafa Kemal



Meanwhile, in November 1920 the Venizelist government in Greece was replaced, through elections, by the Royalists (remember the National Schism?), who opposed the war, and on 19 December King Constantine I, deposed in 1917, returned to the throne. Nevertheless, the Greek advance towards Ankara, the seat of Kemalist power, continued into 1921, and by August they had come to the Sakarya River, about 50 miles from Ankara. The Turkish army, entrenched along the river, was still outnumbered but was now a better equipped and trained force, and the Greeks failed to break through, a strategic victory for the Turks. The Greeks began withdrawing westward.


King Constantine I

A stalemate set in, and in March 1922 the Allies, who were now losing interest in supporting the partitions and discussing the abandonment of the Treaty of Sèvres, called for an armistice, which was rejected by Kemal. In August he launched his offensive and despite being outnumbered two to one he cleared the Greek army from Anatolia by 18 September, and on 24 July 1923 the Treaty of Lausanne confirmed Turkish control of all of Anatolia and eastern Thrace. More than a million Anatolian Greeks were resettled in Greece, while about a half million Muslims left Greek territory. The nearly 3000 year Greek settlement in western Anatolia had ended.


The Turks enter Izmir

Finally, the former Ottoman Empire. Remember the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916? France and Britain had made many promises to the Arabs and Jews about independence, but behind the scenes they had agreed to establish spheres of influence. All this was known of course, inasmuch as the Bolsheviks had published all Russia’s secret treaties in late 1917, and they declared no interest in the piece of eastern Anatolia assigned to Russia. The British began an unending stream of weak arguments that King Hussein had misunderstood the earlier agreements, but he refused to sign the Versailles Treaty. The British continued negotiations with Hussein until March 1924 and a half year later they switched their support to King Ibn Saud of Riyadh (Nejd).



Zones of French (blue), British (red) and Russian (green) influence and control established by the Sykes–Picot Agreement.


Feisal Hussein and Lawrence at Versailles

With no opposition from the British Ibn Saud was free to expand his power in Arabia, and Hussein’s days as King of the Hejaz were numbered.  The Hejaz was conquered in 1925, and the following year Ibn Saud became King of the Hejaz.  By 1929 Ibn Saud, as King of Hejaz and Nejd, controlled all the Arab Peninsula, excepting Oman, Yemen and the Gulf kingdoms, in which the British had interests.  On 23 September 1932 the two states were united as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and with the discovery of oil this repressive medieval autocracy became the darling of the West and ultimately a close and increasingly uncomfortable ally of the United States.   And with it came the poison of Wahhabism, the most extreme and vicious form of Sunni Islam.


Ibn Saud, King of Saudi Arabia



Hussein, former King of the Hejaz


Ottoman Arabia


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia








The Versailles Treaty created the states of Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq from the Ottoman provinces north of the Hejaz; in April 1921 the Emirate of Transjordan, carved out of southern Syria and eastern Palestine, was recognize as a state. But these “independent” states were all to varying degrees controlled by France and Britain through League of Nations Mandates., which allowed the Mandate power to determine when an area was ready for complete independence. The French Mandate covered Lebanon and Syria and the British Palestine and Transjordan; because of widespread revolts there was no Mandate for Iraq, but the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1922 effectively gave the British control over the area – and the oil. The Zionists fared a bit better. They did not get a Jewish state, but Zionism had been recognized and the Balfour Declaration provided some hope for a new Israel.

Mandates of the Versailles Treaty

We are now living with the legacy of these post-war arrangements. Iraq was granted full independence in 1932 (though British influence clearly remained), but the other Mandates were not given up until after the Second World War, as colonialism was collapsing. The Arab world quite justifiably felt betrayed by the West, certainly by the French and British, and the foundation of contemporary Arab resentment of the West (and its values) and the emergence of extremist Islam can be laid at the door of Versailles. As can the disaster of Iraq, stitched together from areas with little sectarian relationship to one another and plundered by the British.

A patchwork country

Not being officially involved in the settlement of the Middle East and espousing a policy of self-determination, the Americans were generally spared of any blame, but in 1948 Great War veteran President Harry Truman, against the advice of his advisors, threw the support of the United States behind the establishment of the state of Israel. Quite understandably, the Arab world saw this as one of the last gasps of western colonialism, especially since most of the new Jewish population came from Europe and America and their new state had the ultimate military backing of the United States. The autocratic and aggressive nature of her neighbors notwithstanding, Israel’s rise to regional superpower and the increasing callousness and disregard for established international law embodied in her policies fueled further resentment and extremism. And now America, tied to Israel with the “passionate attachment” Washington warned of, reaps the hate.

Stuff from Way Back #34a: We Had to Destroy the Empire to Save It


(This essay follows Stuff from Way Back #33: Roma, We Have a Problem.  A note on Roman names: Romans – at least the elites – traditionally had a base of three names, the praenomen, nomen and cognomen, as in Gaius Julius Caesar.  The praenomen was the personal name, usually abbreviated, and by the time of the Principate there were only about a dozen in common use.  The nomen was the gens or clan name, and the cognomen was originally a modifier of the nomen, but could become hereditary, in which case it indicated the particular family in that clan.  Other cognomina might be added to express some achievement, such as P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus.  This arrangement crumbled during the Anarchy, and in the Dominate nomina [or a modified form of them] were frequently employed in the place of a traditional praenomen.)


Against all odds the Roman Empire had survived the Anarchy, but the Late Empire or Dominate bore little resemblance to the autocracy that Augustus had established three centuries earlier.  Most important, the political stability that characterized most of the history of the Principate was gone forever, washed away by the civil wars of the Anarchy and the corruption of the military.  The Empire was now facing continually growing barbarian pressure on the northern frontiers as the great German migrations to the west and the south got underway, while the effectiveness of the army had plummeted, allowing incursion after incursion into the provinces.  Economically, the Empire was in ruins, as the tax base shrank from devastated farmlands and declining commerce, while the state resources consumed by the army continued to rise.  The Empire had become an unpleasant place in which to live, and it may be assumed that any sense of loyalty to the state, which was now seen as an oppressor, had disappeared.





But Diocletian did bring a measure of stability, and the empire was relatively free of internal strife for the next two decades.  Having assumed the purple in 284, two years later he made another Illyrian, M. Aurelius Valerius Maximianus, his co-ruler, who would look after the west while he took up residence in Nicomedia in the east.  Diocletian had determined that because of internal troubles and barbarian invasions the Empire was now too big for one man to govern, and in 293 he established the Tetrarchy.  Each Augustus appointed a Caesar, Galerius Valerius Maximianus for Diocletian and Flavius Valerius Constantius Chlorus for Maximian, the idea being that each Caesar would succeed his Augustus in an orderly fashion.

In a way the Tetrarchy was a return to Augustus’ original plan for succession – the Princeps would train his successor and associate him in power – but it is doubtful that this complex structure of four rulers could have worked even in the halcyon days of the early Principate.  It certainly did not in the wake of the Anarchy.  The type of man likely to be an effective ruler of the problem-plagued Late Empire was likely also to be ambitious and reluctant to share the ultimate power.  Further, the natural son of an Emperor was not likely to be amused if someone else was named his father’s Caesar.

Constantine Chlorus

Constantine Chlorus



When Diocletian abdicated in 305 and compelled a reluctant Maximian to do the same, the Second Tetrarchy quickly collapsed into a new civil war.  For a variety of reasons Diocletian decided to pass over the sons of Galerius and Chlorus as the new Caesars, naming Flavius Valerius Severus and Galerius Valerius Maximinus Daia.  In 306 Chlorus died after crushing an invasion of Picts in Britain, and while Severus succeeded him as Augustus in Rome, the army elevated Chlorus’ illegitimate son, Flavius Valerius Constantinus, to Augustus, thus opening the floodgates.  Maximian came out of retirement, and he and his son, M. Aurelius Valerius Maxentius, became Augusti in 306, turning out Severus and causing Galerius to invade Italy, unsuccessfully.  Diocletian himself attempted to negotiate a settlement in 308, retiring Maximian again, outlawing Maxentius and naming Valrerius Licinianus Licinius Augustus.  There were now six Augusti: Galerius, Constantine, Maximinus Daia, Maximian, who refused to stay retired, Maxentius, who refused to go quietly, and Licinius.  It was now necessary to have a program to keep track of the players.



Maximinus Daia

Maximinus Daia







It got simpler.  Maximian was murdered, and in 311 Galerius finally died, removing the major player from the game.  The following year Constantine formed an alliance with Licinius in the east and invaded Italy to take out Maxentius, who was allied to Maximinus Daia.  At the battle of the Milvan Bridge outside Rome, Constantine, a better general with a better though smaller army, crushed Maxentius, having sought the aid of the Christian god by having the Chi Rho (the first two letters of Christos in Greek) painted on his men’s shields.  For the first time a Roman ruler had appealed to the new god.

Chi Rho

Chi Rho

Now there were three, and in 313 Maximinus Daia, who had received no cut of Maxentius’ territory, attacked Licinius, was defeated and died of sickness.  Licinius began to intrigue against Constantine, but in the wake of inconclusive military action they reconciled and in 317 named their sons as their Caesars.  The showdown came in 323, when Constantine chased raiding Goths into Thrace, Licinius’ territory, and the eastern Augustus responded by launching a war, which ended the following year in Licinius’ defeat and later execution.

Constantine was now sole Emperor and would remain so until his death in 337.  During this period he continued and in some cases completed developments that had been underway since the Anarchy and especially since Diocletian.  The exclusion of the civil authorities from involvement in the military, begun in earnest by Gallerius during the Anarchy, was now complete, and the Senate had essentially become little more than a municipal council and a ceremonial and honorary association.  The autocracy had become an absolute despotism, and Constantine ruled by the grace of god.  He adopted the diadem and an oriental style court, replete with ceremonial procedures, titles and orders of preference, and what had originally been an unequal partnership between the Princeps and Senate was now a traditional Near Eastern kingship.

Constantine the Great

Constantine the Great

The Imperial bureaucracy continued its rapid growth, as the state attempted to control every aspect of the lives of the Empire’s inhabitants, and as much as was possible for a pre-industrial society, the Roman Empire became more and more totalitarian.  In order to prevent land from going out of cultivation, farmers were legally tied to their farms, unable to escape the increasingly oppressive taxation.  These bound farmers, the coloni, would form the basis of medieval serfdom.  Occupations, especially farming, were made hereditary, turning the Empire into a vast social prison and creating a highly stratified society, in which inequality was institutionalized in the law.  The elites, state and municipal officials, soldiers and veterans, were the honestiores; virtually all the rest of the population constituted the humiliores, who were subject to more restrictive laws and more brutal punishments.

These arrangements of course seriously injured agricultural productivity and especially commerce, and while Constantine reformed the currency, there simply was not enough revenue to support the military without crushing taxation, which further injured the economy.  The Empire was running out of silver and gold, and Diocletian’s attempt in 301 to freeze prices was, as one might expect, a complete failure.  Constantine had to accept taxes in kind, laying another foundation for medieval society.  Further, the maintenance of the Imperial infrastructure had traditionally relied upon liturgies, the voluntary contributions of the municipal elites, but these men were being now squeezed by the increasing taxation, which compelled the state to make such contributions mandatory.  The result was the deterioration of the middle income class, especially businessmen, who were at the heart of the non-agricultural economy, and it became harder and harder to find individuals willing to serve in the municipal offices.

Major changes were taking place in the military sphere.  Constantine created a Field Army that could be rushed to any crisis in the Empire, further emphasizing cavalry, which formed the core of the new army, while for the first time in Roman history infantry took second place.  The prominence of horse was not just a response to the Persians, who had excellent cavalry, but also because of its mobility in dealing with threats.  Meanwhile, the frontiers were increasingly dependent upon fortifications and border troops that were little more than local poorly trained militias.  From the point defense of the Principate and the elastic defense of the Anarchy the Empire moved to a defense in depth, in which multiple lines of fortified points would slow any barbarian invasion, providing the Field Army the time to move to confront the danger.  Finally, more and more barbarians were being recruited into the military, especially the frontier units, and entire tribes were being given land within the Empire in return for their military services.  This development was to a great degree a response to the declining population of the Empire, who were desperately needed in agriculture, but it nevertheless boded ill for the future.

Late Roman "Heavy" Cavalry

Late Roman “Heavy” Cavalry

Traditional Roman Infantry

Traditional Roman Infantry

Late Roman Infantry

Late Roman Infantry

Regarding that future, two of Constantine’s achievements were momentous enough to mark major turning points in Roman history – and that of the West in general.  Because of the Persian threat and the fact that the major barbarian pressure was along the lower Danube, he perceived a need for a “capital” in the east, and consequently the ancient Greek city of Byzantium on the Bosporus was rebuilt in 324 as Constantinople, the “city of Constantine.”  Constantine could hardly know it, of course, but the existence of a “New Rome” would certainly help facilitate the later separation of the Empire into two states and the emergence of the Byzantine Empire, which would carry on a Greek version of the Roman tradition for another millennium.

The other was even more world shaking, the establishment of Christianity as the favored and then official religion of the Empire.  I have tended to be cynical about Constantine’s conversion (which took place on his death bed, a not uncommon occurrence), but the more I look into this (I have always found studying the Late Empire depressing.) the more I think his commitment to the Church was genuine.  Most of the army was after all polytheist, and it is estimated that by the fourth century Christians only comprised about ten percent of the population, a weak base upon which to establish a new imperial policy simply for political reasons.  The stories of visions in the sky and dreams may be discounted, but it may well be that the success of his somewhat desperate invasion of Italy and the victory at the Milvan Bridge convinced him of the power of the Christian god.  His various efforts to preserve the unity of the religion, particularly the First Council of Nicaea in 325, which officially defined the Church’s understanding of the Trinity, strongly suggests a man who is personally concerned about the faith.

Whatever his motives, his conversion resulted in every succeeding Emperor but one being Christian, and Christianity thus rapidly became identified with the state and emerged as the official religion under Theodosius (379-395).  Constantine himself was generally respectful of the rights of non-Christians, but given the exclusive nature of monotheism and growing power of the Church, it was only inevitable that future rulers would become more repressive.  The persecution of the pagani would in fact begin under Constantine’s sons.  (See also Stuff from Way Back #14: The New God on the Block and Stuff from Way Back #15: These Christians Are Really Annoying.)

Constantine gained the appellation “the Great,” certainly deserved, for like Augustus he was one of the few individuals in history who single-handedly and dramatically affected the course of events.


285-337 Dominate I

284-305 C. Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus (abdicated)

286-305 M. Aurelius Valerius Maximianus (abdicated)

286 Peasant revolt in Gaul

297-298 Persian War

301 Edict on Prices

303-304 Edicts against Christians

305-306 Flavius Valerius Constantius Chlorus

305-311 Galerius Valerius Maximianus 

306-337 Flavius Valerius Constantinus 

306-307 Flavius Valerus Severus 

306-308 M. Aurelius Valerius Maximianus

                           M. Aurelius Valerius Maxentius 

308-324 Valerius Licinianus Licinius 

310-313 Galerius Valerius Maximinus Daia 

                   312 Battle of the Milvan Bridge

313 Edict of Milan/Toleration

324-330 Foundation of Constantinople

325 First Council of Nicaea; Constantine adopts the diadem











Stuff from Way Back #15: These Christians Are Really Annoying

(Three weeks ago I posted a piece on Albert Göring, who was being considered for inclusion in the Israeli Righteous Among the Nations for his work in rescuing Jews. Apparently he did not make it, presumably because of a rumor of a Jewish father, which would make him ineligible, and Israel avoids the embarrassment of having Reichsmarschall Göring’s brother among the honored.)

The Roman persecution of Christians is a well-known episode in the history of the religion, but inasmuch as these events occurred almost two millennia ago, there is no longer a Roman Empire and the Church was the winner, one might expect that some distortion has crept into the popular narrative. And it has, primarily because few people have any real knowledge of the Empire beyond what Christianity and Hollywood have suggested and even fewer understand the nature of traditional Roman religion. As a result a key fact has been lost: so long as you observed Roman tradition the state did not give a damn what gods you worshipped (at least until the state became Christian).

At first of course Rome did not even notice the new cult. Those with any knowledge of Judaea assumed it was yet another Jewish heresy, doomed to disappear, as in fact the sect of Christian Jews did. As the adherents of the new faith spread and multiplied, it was popular dislike that first caught the attention of the authorities. Like the Jews, Christians were monotheists, compelled by their beliefs to deny the existence of other gods, and they were doing this in a society that was completely polytheist. Polytheist societies are generally tolerant when it comes to religion, even in states with a religious establishment supporting a divinely connected kingship, as in the Sumerian city-states and Egypt. Inasmuch as deities were typically personifications of natural phenomenon, it was easy to identify gods across cultural lines, and in any case no one (excepting perhaps Akhenaten) was about to deny the existence of other gods and certainly not resort to violence in order to teach others a lesson.

Into this world come the Christians, telling their neighbors that the gods of their fathers do not exist and that they are wasting their time worshipping idols. Of course the Jews had been doing this for quite a while, but apart from small communities in some of the cities of the Empire, they were essentially a phenomenon localized in Judaea, and in any case they did not proselytize. Early Christians were in fact confused with Jews, but as their numbers grew, people realized this was something new – and very annoying. And if modern evangelicals are any indication, these early Christians likely often displayed a holier-than-thou attitude; they had the good news after all.

There was also a feeling that for all their professed love these people actually hated mankind. The first generation or so of Christians believed that the Christ would be returning soon, perhaps in their lifetimes, and there was consequently talk of what would happen then. And if Revelations is the guide, it would be unmitigated horror, suffering and death for non-believers, which was of course virtually all of humanity. There were also rumors of strange and disgusting rites, such as incest and cannibalism, the sort of things that are said of the despised and alien throughout history. Natural disasters and unexplained misfortunes were blamed on them. The Christians were strangers in a strange land and initially played the same role of the “other” that the Jews would play in medieval and modern Europe.

Capping it all off was the growing suspicion that they were disloyal as well as obnoxious. The traditional religion of Greece and Rome was primarily civic in nature, concerned with the cohesion and well-being of the community, and as such, it was closely connected to the idea of the state. The sacrifices and rituals were communal, designed to keep the community in the right relationship with heaven, and in the case of Rome this led to the emergence of priesthoods, such as the Pontifex Maximus, that were actually state offices. The holders of these positions were not “priests” in the familiar sense of the word, that is, representatives of a centralized church, as the priests of the temple of Amon-Re or the Catholic Church. Their job was not to intercede for or counsel the individual, but to conduct the rituals necessary for the survival and prosperity of the community.

As a result, honoring Jupiter Best and Greatest and his colleagues was more of a social act than a religious one, declaring ones good standing as a member of the community. If the worshipper had other more personal concerns regarding heaven, he would turn to gods more pertinent to his situation, especially traditional local deities among the provincials. As with most things, Rome had always had a laissez faire attitude regarding non-Roman religions, so long as there was no threat to public order and morals, such as led the Senate to ban certain Bacchanalian rites in 186 BC. She was even ready to tolerate an extremely intolerant religion, Judaism, because it was essentially local and no threat to the state. Nevertheless, denying the existence of the Olympic gods was in fact directly assaulting one of the foundations of the state and endangering the well-being of the society.

Even so, Christianity might have gone unnoticed were it not for the fact that they quickly became almost universally unpopular, even hated, and their vociferous rejection of the Roman gods struck people as disloyal. Constantly claiming that their god was their only true “king” and master also did not sit well in an autocratic society, and the ideas of their founder/prophet regarding the poor and the rich were absolutely revolutionary in a world always dominated by the propertied classes. So, there was in fact public disorder in the form of anti-Christian riots, which the authorities were compelled to deal with. All the evidence indicates that the Roman government was completely aware of the essentially innocent nature of the new religion, but Roman officials were hardly likely to defend an unpopular minority in the face of overwhelming public displeasure.

Apart from their refusal to pay even lip service to the imperial cults, there was actually a legal problem for the new church. Since the time of Augustus (27 BC-AD 14), the first emperor, new clubs and associations were prohibited unless they were specifically granted imperial approval. The reason was clear: private associations could easily harbor conspiracies against the state (as they did during the collapse of the Republic), and autocrats tend to be very sensitive about this issue. And here was a new and offensive cult spreading throughout the cities of the Empire.
As it happened, the Empire was mellow about the whole issue, and generally confronted the issue only when it could not be avoided because of public clamor. This was certainly the case under Trajan (98-117), who when asked what to do with Christians by his governor in Bithynia, Pliny the Younger, instructed him not to search them out but only act when it was unavoidable. The typical procedure was to require the Christian to make a token sacrifice, a pinch of incense, to an imperial cult, generally that of Roma et Augustus. For the authorities this was far more a pledge of allegiance than a religious act; perform this one act and you would get your “ticket,” your libellus, and could go home and worship whatever gods you pleased. Of course, for a Christian this was apostasy, and though many took the plunge, many did not, which baffled the Romans, who could not fathom such religious fanaticism.

Decius: "Smoke 'em"

Decius: “Smoke ’em”

The result of all this was that violence against Christians was for two centuries limited to popular outbursts, such as blaming Christians for the fire in 64 (encouraged by Nero), and the odd official currying favor with the locals. Not until the third century was there an actual persecution in the sense of the central government taking Empire-wide action against the religion, and this would come during the Anarchy (235-285), a fifty year long civil war that essentially killed the Empire, even though it would stagger on for another century or so. During his short reign Decius (249-251) required that all Christians be put to the test and imprisoned if they refused, and this was repeated, with more severe penalties, by Valerian (253-60) in 257-258. Both of these men were ruling during a period of widespread instability coupled with serious barbarian invasions and internal military revolts and were desperately attempting to restore loyalty to the state. An obvious target was the Christian community, which was now highly organized and blatant in its rejection of the state religion, which now included deified emperors.

Diocletian (285-305) ended the Anarchy, but the Empire would never again come close to the stability and economic well-being it enjoyed before 235, and the history of the Late Empire was one of military autocracy alternating with periods of civil war. In 304 Diocletian launched the last anti-Christian crusade, destroying churches and sacred books and imprisoning priests, but it ended with his abdication the following year and seems to have petered out because of lack of popular support. His ultimate successor, Constantine the Great (305-337), legalized Christianity with the Edicts of Toleration (311-313), and with his conversion it became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Valerian: "Crush 'em"

Valerian: “Crush ’em”

And then the real persecutions begin, as the government implements a continuous policy of crushing polytheism and eliminating the pagani (“rural folk”), so called because the old cults hung on the longest in the rural areas. Unlike those carried out against the Christians this persecution was moved by nothing other than simple religious intolerance.

Diocletian: "Eat 'em"

Diocletian: “Eat ’em”

In the end Christians themselves would slaughter tens of thousands more Christians than the Roman Empire ever did.

Paris 1572 - Christians killing Christians

Paris 1572 – Christians killing Christians

Stuff from Way Back #14: The New God on the Block

(In keeping with the season I present a brief historical (leaving any deities out of it) understanding of exactly why Christianity was so damn successful.  Next week I will deal with the other question: what exactly was the reaction of the Roman government and why, a topic that has been seriously distorted because, well, the Empire no longer exists and Christianity does.)

Christianity is clearly a fusion of east and west, being a sort of religious hybrid produced by the intersection of Hebrew monotheism and the Greek mystery cult brought on by several hundred years of Greek control of Palestine. To some degree it is also a mix of oriental mysticism and Greek rationalism, inasmuch as the basic beliefs were later influenced by Stoicism and neo-Platonism. In essence, the Jews supplied the idea of the sole, ethical creator god, disconnected from the natural world, while the Greeks, through their mystery religion, contributed the notion of the dying and resurrected god. Paul and his associates made the new religion palatable for the world outside Judaea by stripping it of unappealing Jewish ritual, such as circumcision and dietary laws, and Greek rationalism then proceeded to refine the understanding of the godhead.

First of all, Christianity shared the ideas that had made the mystery cults so popular in Greece and later the Roman Empire. Traditional Greek and Roman religion was essentially civic in nature, primarily serving the community and devoid of any personal or inspirational quality. The mystery religion, which came in a variety of specific cults, did not deny the traditional gods but rather focused in on a single or tiny group of deities, providing the worshipper with a more personal and intimate relationship with divinity. The cults also involved emotional initiations and revealed knowledge, known only to the initiates, who gained in the cult at least a measure of equality with their richer and more powerful brethren. Christianity had no secrets but it rested on revealed knowledge and also offered a sense of special community within its ranks. Most all the mystery cults revolved around the central figure of a god or human who either literally or figuratively dies and is resurrected, thus providing an analogue of hope for the worshipper facing the inevitability of death. Further, the cults promised some reward, initially in this life, but by the end of the fifth century BC evidence appears suggesting the idea of judgment and reward in another life.

Christianity offered all these things but was something more than just another mystery religion. The Christian god was not just some Olympic retread, but the god of love, completely absorbed in those he had created. His death and resurrection was not simply some mythic event that had nothing to do with humanity beyond providing a message of hope. Rather, he became human and died specifically for humanity, a divine sacrifice that reveals an entirely novel concept of god. He was the god of all – rich, poor, slaves, free, men, women – something that was not always true of polytheist deities; for example, Mithraism, far and away the most popular cult in the Empire, was open only to men. And Christianity (at least until a powerful church emerged) cost nothing but commitment, while the polytheist religions required sometimes costly sacrifices, such as the bathing in bull’s blood incumbent on Mithraists.

Above all, this new god may have been open to everyone, but he definitely had a bias towards the poor and downtrodden. The rich and powerful had always had the edge in spiritual affairs, whether in the quality of their gifts or in outright control of the mechanisms of the religion. For the first time in history there was a god who favored the meek and chided the wealthy, and of course the vast majority of the in habitants of the Empire fit into the former category. This must have made for immense drawing power.

The religion also quickly developed the primitive ideas of judgment in the mystery cults into a full-blown system of reward and punishment in the next life and firmly rooted the judgment in the moral code inherited from Judaism. Obviously, promise of a better life in the next world is going to turn the heads of those whose life in this one is not that great, and while Christianity is born into an imperial society that constituted one of the more comfortable periods in history, in a few centuries life in the Roman Empire was going to become very unpleasant for most of its subjects. Now, the reward and punishment was based on the observance of a fairly strict ethical code, which might be expected to turn away potential converts. Most of us can get through life without committing homicide or adultery, but the thought crimes are very tough; “Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s wife” is after all a rule even Jimmy Carter violated. But most people want a moral structure provided for them, and the basic rules provided by Christianity struck a favorable chord precisely because they were good rules. The Ten Commandments are the Ten Commandments because they proclaim the basic laws absolutely necessary for a stable society.

So the demanding moral code was likely also an attraction of the new religion, which was offering reward in the afterlife for behavior that virtually all normal humans consider good and proper. On the other hand, not even a Mother Teresa could keep all these rules all the time, and what made the whole system feasible for the average Joe was the loophole: forgiveness. Were it not for the mechanism of contrition and forgiveness, the new religion would be making impossible demands and simply not work.

Extremely important in the triumph of Christianity is the simple fact that it happened in history. The core event of the religion, the death and resurrection of the god, did not take place in some distant mythic past, as in the mystery cults, but right there in the Roman province of Judaea during the reign of Tiberius (14-37). The first apostles of the new god had actually been there, first hand witnesses of the essential events of the religion. They heard the sermons and saw the miracles and the crucifiction, and some claimed experience of the resurrection itself. This gave the religion an impetus unmatched by the old belief systems.

Additionally, though it may have played something of a negative role in the spread, the exclusiveness of the monotheistic religion certainly helped preserve it intact. Syncretism, the identifying and combining of gods across cultural lines, was an inevitable component of polytheism and produced religious hybrids, such as the cult of Isis and Serapis. This simply could not happen to Christianity – at least in any serious way – because there were no other gods. This would produce a religious fanaticism unknown in antiquity outside the Hebrews, and that fanaticism presumably helped a bit. These were people who were willing to die for their god, and that kind of commitment surely had to impress potential adherents.

Finally, there is the element of coincidence: the charismatic preacher was born at the height of the Roman Empire.  Without this huge area of political stability and easy communications the new religion would very likely not have been anything more than another eastern cult.  Two centruies earlier Rome was only beginning to nose into the eastern Mediterranean, and it is not all clear that the new religion, which would be perceived as a heresy by the Jews, would have survived the religiously reactionary Hasmonean kingdom.  Two centuries later and the religion would almost certainly not have the time to spread and develop its infrastructure before the western Empire collapsed.  It might survive in the east, but the conversion of the barbarian tribes becomes more problematic, and what would the history of the west be like without the Church to carry civilization through the Dark Ages?

"In hoc signo, Baby!"

“In hoc signo, Baby!”

Such are the reasons for the initial survival and spread of Christianity, but the final triumph and emergence of the new creed as the exclusive religion of the western world owed less to its nature than to political developments. Because of popular hostility and ultimately government obstruction (tune in next week), by the beginning of the fourth century Christians constituted perhaps only ten percent of the population, but for seemingly cynical political reasons Constantine the Great (sole emperor 324-337) embraced the religion. One might question the conviction of Constantine, who converted only on his deathbed, but the imperial family became Christian, and after Constantine every emperor but one (Julian the Apostate) was a member of the faith, thus making Christianity a powerful force in the government of the Empire. With the power of the sate behind it Christianity began a rapid expansion, as polytheists were subject to greater and greater persecution.

The collapse of the western Empire in the fifth century guaranteed the complete supremacy of Christianity, as the Church, now the only surviving governing structure in the west, emerged as a kind of international corporation manipulating the emerging barbarian kingdoms. The conversion of the Germanic tribes, especially the
Franks, resulted in a new warrior Christianity, which spelled doom for the surviving polytheists of Europe. The Prince of Peace had finally triumphed, albeit with a sword in his hand.