When In Rome…

November 4, 2006 | By | Reply More

“We resolve to grant Christians and all other men freedom to observe whatever religion they think fit, so that the divinity, who has his abode in heaven, be propitious and benevolent as well for us as for any of those living under our rule. It seemed to us a very good and very reasonable system to refuse to none of our subjects, whether a Christian or a follower of some other cult, the right to observe the religion that’s him best…”

Emperor Constantine made that the law of the Roman Empire in February of 313. The idea of religious tolerance is, apparently, nothing new.

At the time Rome was a multifaceted empire–what we would term today a pluralistic society. Constantine came to the throne in the wake of a few emperors who had practiced considerable religious intolerance toward Christianity–Diocletian most significantly–and found that the stress put on civic institutions and the internal problems of the empire were only exacerbated by such intolerance. By then Christians were too numerous to suppress and, indeed, many high-ranking officials were embracing the cult. Constantine, aside from all the hagiographic smoke about the Milvian Bridge victory, was a pragmatist first and foremost, and realized that citizens came in all stripes and that oppressing one group usually meant oppressing all groups. He had an empire to run and he didn’t need religious infighting. Almost all his actions in this area can be seen as an attempt to rationalize the various aspects of his far-reaching and composite realm.

Theodosius I, however, created a law banning all pagan worship practices in November of 392. Specifically, the Interdict banned practices, not beliefs (sound familiar?) but religions are defined by their modes of worship, ergo, the law was aimed at abolishing pagan religions.

This was still eighty some years before the final fall of the Western Roman Empire, when the last western emperor was deposed by his military adjutant. So from the time of Constantine’s embrace of Christianity, through the last imperial gasp of paganism under Julian the Apostate, till Odoacer became de facto military dictator of Rome, Christianity increased it hold and presence in the empire to the point where it was the only legal religion.

Yet Rome still fell.

Now, yes, let me hasten to say that many factors fed into the collapse of Rome, and that, in fact, the body of the empire did survive almost another thousand years in the East. One cannot reduce such an event to a single cause.

But you can make a case for a single factor being representative of the faults that led to its demise.

Rome had become the largest empire in Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Near East through many policies, many of which were centered on an idea of ideological tolerance. Rome absorbed provinces and countries and kingdoms and then said, basically, “pay your taxes, do not profane the institutions of Rome, and accept our laws, and you can do pretty much anything else you want.” Many border nations petitioned to become part of the empire to protect them from aggressive neighbors. But my point is that at one time Rome contained within it hundreds of religious cults and accorded them all legal status.

And this was at a time when Rome was arguably at its peak. The pluralism didn’t hurt it one bit. The decline, however, seems to follow the rise of religious monopoly and the laws and oppressions that were necessary to make the empire a mono-culture, religiously speaking.

It didn’t work. Fracture lines appeared and grew the more the Christians demanded the ouster of competing cults. Dissension within the empire grew just as external pressures mounted.

Where was Jehovah?

Sorry, that last was rhetorical. But Christianity did not save Rome, even after the patriarch of Rome became the putative head of the Christian church.

Now, the initial suppression of the cults was less religious on the part of the emperors than political. Part and parcel of most of the cults that practiced blood sacrifice was the practice of augury, which is the divination of the future by reading entrails. This came to be seen as a political act. Emperors didn’t like the idea of anyone, especially a potential competitor, seeing who would be the next emperor. The first oppressive laws were aimed at exactly this and made a distinction between “white magic” and “black magic” (yes, that long ago)–the former being considered harmless because it stayed out of such things as forecasting the future.

Eventually, though, it became a movement to abolish all competing theologies and center public worship on an institution the emperor controlled (so it was thought).

All the petty prejudices people hold emerged, though, justified by the elitism brought on through the whole notion of “being saved” through Christ. Christianity itself changed fundamentally at this time, moving from a private religious belief to a political organization complete with loyalty oaths. It never recovered its initial egalitarianism. The exclusivity and intolerance of the church as tool of Roman imperialism eventually destroyed the broad based, pluralistic nature of the Roman Empire at its pinnacle. When it finally collapsed in the West, it took the better part of three centuries for Europe to begin to recover.

My point is, when arguing about public morality and the word of god versus evolution or “getting back to true fundamentals”, we should take a lesson from Rome. Trying to assert a monoculture on a population as diverse as ours will lead to worse fractures. Rome was at its best when it recognized, as in Constantine’s 313 edict, that the realm is made up of different people and they have a right to be different.


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Category: American Culture, Bigotry, Civil Rights, Culture, History, Politics, Religion

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

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